The early-literacy programs created by a 2012 law have reduced the percentages of young students reading below grade level, according to a study by an advocacy group.

The report, the READ Act Implementation Study, found that the statewide percentage of kindergarten through third grade students identified with a “significant reading deficiency” dropped from 16 percent in 2013 to 14 percent in 2014. That amounted to about 5,000 students.

The study was commissioned by Colorado Succeeds, a business-oriented education reform group, in cooperation with several other local advocacy groups and foundations.

“It is abundantly clear from the information collected and analyzed from assessment data, surveys of successful districts and schools, and case studies that schools in Colorado have made a measurable difference in just one year of implementation of the READ Act,” the study concluded.

The goal of the READ Act is to have all students reading at grade level by the end of third grade. It requires literacy evaluations of K-3 students at the beginning of each school year plus periodic progress assessments. Schools must create individual reading plans for students identified with significant deficiencies.

The program rolled out in the 2013-14 school year, so results from 2014-15 provided data for comparison.

The report also found that all demographic subgroups showed declines in the percentage of students with significant deficiencies, with the exception of special education students.

“The READ Act appears to be having the greatest positive impact for students who are often identified as being most at-risk for reading difficulties,” the report said. “As an example, 35 percent of ELL students had an SRD before the READ Act, and 27 percent of ELL students had an SRD after one year of implementation. The number of free and reduced lunch students with an SRD fell from 26 percent to 23 percent. Though these reductions are to be celebrated, the number of students in various at-risk categories with an SRD is still significantly higher than their peers.”

The study said 59 percent of districts reduced their percentages of students with significant deficiencies, 30 percent showed increases and 11 percent saw no change.

Only two larger districts, Adams 14 and Adams 50 (Westminster), were among the 15 districts with reductions of at least 8 percentage points.

The report concluded, “Four primary factors were identified as having contributed to the success of so many schools in just one year: (1) the systematic use of student performance data, (2) professional development of teachers and staff that aligned to the READ Act, (3) the use of high-quality instructional materials from the recommended list provided by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE), and (4) following the goals and mandates of the READ Act.”

But the study cautioned, “Colorado’s most recent third grade reading results show that literacy continues to be an area in dire need of improvement. Third grade reading results went down statewide in 2014, with just over 71 percent of students scoring proficient or above.”

(See full report at the bottom of this article.)

The report, conducted by two professional researchers, used assessment data, surveyed 120 districts that had reductions and did case studies of four successful schools and one district.

The READ Act was the most recent piece of major reform legislation passed by the legislature. Education debates in the three sessions since then have been dominated by school finance and testing.

A major point of contention during the 2012 READ Act debates were provisions that allowed lagging 3rd grade students to be held back. Those provisions were significantly limited in the final version of the bill, leading to the compromise that made passage possible. The new study doesn’t address the issue of holding students back. (See this Chalkbeat story for the history of the READ Act.)

As part of an omnibus testing bill, the 2015 legislature eased some READ Act requirements, including a provision that students who are reading at grade level don’t need to be tested later in the school year. Lawmakers also eliminated some overlaps between the READ Act and school readiness assessments. (Learn more about the new testing law in this story.)