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Data from this past spring’s standardized tests reveal that Palo Alto public schools are making substantial progress towards their early literacy goals, despite the impacts that the pandemic has had on education.

The portion of third graders reading “near” or “above” state standards in reading on the 2022 Smarter Balanced standardized test increased by 4.3 percentage points, compared to a pre-pandemic 2019 baseline, according to data the district presented at a school board meeting earlier this month.

The gains were far higher for certain groups, including a 15.8 percentage point increase for low-income students, a 16 point gain for students with disabilities and an 8.6 point jump for Latino students.

The district has focused its efforts on third grade, which is the first year students take state standardized tests. Research has also shown that being on track for reading in third grade is a powerful predictor of students’ future academic success.

The Palo Alto Unified School District launched the Every Student Reads Initiative last year, with the specific goal of improving the reading performance of third graders from groups that have historically performed below the district averages. The particular groups that were identified are Latino, Black, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, as well as those who are low-income, disabled or learning English.

In the first year of the program, the school district wanted to see a 3 point improvement in the percentage of these students scoring “near” or “above” the state standard in reading.

All of the groups exceeded that goal, with the exception of Black and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, for whom the state didn’t report results. To protect student privacy, the state only released reading results for groups with at least 30 students.

Superintendent Don Austin told the school board on Sept. 13 that the scores show that the focus on reading has yielded results.

“Tonight, hopefully we can celebrate a little bit,” Austin said. “We’re not celebrating victory – we’re celebrating progress in an area where our district has not had great progress in the past for a long time.”

The district also set a second goal of seeing a 3 point improvement for these groups in their overall English Language Arts scores (reading is one of four sections of the English Language Arts exam). That goal was achieved by low-income students, Black students and low-income Latino students. Latino students more broadly saw a 1.5 point increase. Those learning English and students with disabilities saw declines of 1 and 3.3 points, respectively.

According to Director of Literacy Instruction Danae Reynolds, the district has honed in on reading scores in particular, which may explain the stronger improvements in reading scores than language arts overall. For groups who didn’t see improvements in their language arts scores, Reynolds said that the district will do a deeper dive into the non-reading portions of language arts.

It isn’t currently possible to compare Palo Alto’s scores to districts across the state because California has not yet released comprehensive data. Instead, the state has sent individual districts their scores, some of which have publicized them, including Palo Alto.

The California Department of Education announced earlier this week that it would publish the statewide test results in October, a reversal of the department’s prior decision to withhold the data until it was ready to release a full dashboard of school data, which includes items like suspension and absenteeism rates.

Many expect the results will show statewide declines in student performance, fueled by the pandemic, suggesting that Palo Alto’s improvement in reading performance may be unusual.

Seeing improvements in scores while coming out of a pandemic speaks to the district’s commitment to student literacy, Reynolds said.

“It was really exciting to be able to work closely with principals and teachers and families and work together towards this common goal of increasing reading achievement for our students,” Reynolds said.

Though the district focused specifically on third grade results at a Sept. 13 board meeting, overall student performance on the English Language Arts exam (grades 3 through 8 and 11) also showed improvement, with a 1.2 percentage point increase in the number of students meeting or exceeding standards compared to 2019.

Despite the gains, there are still substantial disparities in reading performance. For third graders overall, 93.4% of students were “near” or “above” the state standard this spring, but only 77.8% of low-income students and 81.3% of disabled students met the same benchmark.

These gaps have been a longstanding problem for both Palo Alto Unified and schools across the state and nation. The Every Student Reads Initiative in particular was an effort to address the disparity.

“We recognized from looking at our student scores over time that we historically have not been able to serve these students in the way in which we know we can,” Reynolds said.

Beyond the 3 point progress goal for last school year, the district wants to see another 4 point increase in reading and language arts scores for underserved student groups this school year, as well as a 5 point increase in the 2023-2024 year.

To improve student reading performance, Reynolds told the Weekly that the district used a phonics program last school year called the Orton Gillingham methodology, which takes a multisensory approach. Students will do activities like drawing letters in sand as they say the sound that the letter makes.

The phonics methodology is used alongside a broader English Language Arts curriculum. This past spring, the school board approved a new ELA curriculum, known as Benchmark Advance/Adelante, despite opposition from a number of the teachers who piloted it.

This article was originally published by Palo Alto Online.

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