The number of third-graders who have trouble reading has dropped a heartening 57 percent as a result of a federal grant that has allowed the Payson Unified School District to identify struggling students before they fall through the cracks.
After only a few years, a test that spots early signs of trouble has produced solid results, according to a report to the school board on Tuesday.
“This is really exciting,” said Director of Special Services Barbara Fitzgerald of the preliminary gains students have made as a result of the federally funded Response to Intervention (RTI) program.
The good news on getting students the help they need was balanced by the alarming news that the number of students in the district’s special education program jumped 20 percent to 444 this year, a statistic that emerged in Fitzgerald’s report to the board.
Even the good news about the RTI program came with a sobering footnote: The federal grant runs out this year, so the district may have to find some other way to keep the program going, Fitzgerald said.
So far, a winter benchmark RTI assessment shows a significant drop in the number of first- through third-graders reading below grade level.
The whole goal of the program is to get struggling students caught up to their peers and possibly prevent them from needing the much more expensive and intensive help of special education classes (SPED).
Educators say the earlier a student falls behind, the more difficult it is for him or her to catch up.
Three times a year, teachers assess students using “universal screenings” that check grade-level progress that will identify underperforming students.
The recent assessment of 1,155 elementary school students showed striking progress in reading, including:
First grade: 55 first-graders read below grade level, down 36 percent from last year.
Second grade: 28 read below grade level, a 25 percent drop.
Third grade: 26 read below grade level, a 57 percent drop.
The third-grade figures may prove especially significant, since it marks a crucial transition. Teachers and parents have to face the tough reality of holding students back if they can’t read well enough by third grade.
Meanwhile, the scores for oral fluency and reading comprehension have risen sharply in the past two years — up 57 percent in first grade and 23 percent in both second and third grade.
One-on-one work with teachers and other extra help has made the difference, said Fitzgerald.
The tests help identify struggling students so teachers can try different approaches until they understand.
Stimulus money has partially paid for RTI, but the grant will disappear this year. After that, the district will have to land more grants or shift money around.
The federal funds paid for an additional psychologist to conduct assessments, plus various programs and devices to help teachers do pull-out lessons.
On the special education front, the news proved more sobering.
In PUSD, 14.7 percent of the student population is in SPED.
The federal government has set a target of between 7 percent to 13 percent in SPED to limit “over identification.”
Fitzgerald said the district’s overall enrollment is dropping, but the number of special education students is soaring, including a stunning increase of 20 percent to 444 just since October.
“It is a roller coaster ride with kids coming and going,” she said.
For the third year in a row, the special education program is meeting all federal requirements, although special education students remain below target on reading and math.
Fitzgerald expects to see some improvements in this area with staff doing significant interventions in math.
The dropout rate for special education students is down 2 percent from the year before.
Students with special needs can stay in school until they are 22, so having them graduate in four years is great, Fitzgerald said.
However, the four-year, 70 percent graduation rate for special education students still lags well behind the overall 83 percent graduation rate.
A recent survey of special education parents revealed an 81 percent satisfaction rate. Fitzgerald told the school board this could be higher, but one unhappy parent can really skew the results.
“I am not really thrilled about 81 percent,” she said. “Most parents are happy with what we are doing.”
In fact, the department has not had a parent complaint in the last two years.
“We do go out of our way to meet parents’ needs,” she said.