Only 48% of Utah 3rd graders read at grade level; here’s how lawmakers hope to boost that

By 2027, state officials hope to have 70% of Utah third graders reading on grade level.

(Sarah A. Miller | Idaho Statesman/ProPublica) Third grade students read out loud in partners in teacher Shelly Hoisington's class at Valley View Elementary School in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, Jan. 23, 2023.

It’s been a year since new initiatives got underway to help ensure Utah third graders are reading on grade level — and state officials are pointing to small gains.

Lawmakers allocated $18.5 million, a mix of one-time and ongoing funding, in 2022 to fuel the projects outlined in SB127, the Early Literacy Outcomes Improvement Bill.

From the school year before the bill passed to testing this spring, the percentage of third graders reading on grade level has increased from 44% to 48%. That’s a 2% increase each year.

But lawmakers want to hit the 70% mark by 2027.

“We have a long ways to go,” said Jennifer Throndsen, director of teaching and learning for the Utah State Board of Education. “It’s slowly climbing. We’re going need to see some acceleration in order to get to that 70%.”

The percentage of third graders reading at grade level would need to increase by 5.5% each year for the next four years, she said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The Early Literacy bill mandated that schools, teachers and colleges work in four focus areas to increase K-3 literacy rates: increase both instructional support, such as better literacy assessments, for teachers and statewide support, such as coaches, for the education system; and boost both training of teachers and the preparation of future educators. There are 20 projects across those four areas.

In an update on their progress at the Capitol this week, Throndsen predicted that the state’s early literacy intervention — working with children before the third grade — and providing support and training for early career teachers will improve results significantly.

Tracking improvement over time

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Throndsen, with the Utah State Board of Education speaks during a Science of Reading Expert Panel at the Capitol, on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.

Third grade marks a pivotal moment in a child’s academic career and future success. It’s the year they move from learning to read to reading to learn.

It’s also the first year Utah students take the proficiency exam called RISE, which assesses their mastery of state core standards in English language arts, math, science and writing. Third graders are assessed only on English language arts and math.

To better predict how students will score on RISE — and more broadly, to track the efficiency of interventions and teaching methods — the new projects include stronger monitoring and assessments.

Educators use a test called Acadience, which is a benchmark assessment administered to students three times per year. Scoring “at benchmark” means a student is likely to score above the 40th percentile on any high-quality reading assessment.

However, RISE is a more rigorous test, Throndsen said, meaning that even if students are “at benchmark” with Acadience, they are likely not reading at grade level according to RISE standards.

As an example, 71% of third graders “achieved benchmark” for the 2022-23 school year, but only 48% achieved grade-level proficiency based on RISE standards.

State officials knew changes had to be made. “The benchmark wasn’t telling the full story,” Throndsen said. “We’re getting a lot of false sense of security.”

The state instructed schools to aim for students to score in the “above benchmark” range instead, which more accurately predicted how well they will do on RISE.

The state is also placing more importance on what’s known as Lexile levels. A Lexile is used for two primary purposes: to determine the difficulty of a text or to determine a student’s reading ability. The higher a child’s score, the higher their reading level.

Lexiles are a more accurate prediction of a student’s future performance on RISE, Throndsen said.

Starting as soon as possible

Targeted reading interventions must start before the third grade. And while the state missed the mark with last year’s third graders, last year’s kindergartners made significant improvements in reading.

At the start of the 2022-23 school year, 57% of kindergartners were at benchmark. By the end of the year, that rose to 74%, demonstrating significant growth.

“We had the lowest percentage of students that we’ve had in the past five years in terms of coming in ready for kindergarten,” Throndsen said. “And we ended with the highest percentage of students we’ve ever had, in the history of tracking this data for 15 years, of the students at or above grade level by the end of the year.”

Early intervention is how the state plans to reach its 70% third grade reading proficiency goal, Throndsen explained.

“If we can give them early, early intervention works,” she said. “So that kindergarten cohort going [into first grade] at 75% proficient is going to be a game changer for first grade.”

More support and training for teachers

Teachers are the heart of literacy; every Utah K-3 teacher is now required to undergo what’s called “LETRS” training, or Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.

It’s an intensive professional learning program designed to turn early childhood and elementary educators into literacy and language experts. The program is currently being used in 23 states, according to EdWeek.

So far, more than 6,300 Utah educators have completed all eight units and 4,000 are still in progress.

Prior to taking the course, teachers took a pretest, and only 62% demonstrated sufficient knowledge to pass. But by the end of the course, 91% passed.

“That’s huge in the depth of knowledge that our teachers are gaining in the science of reading,” said Julie Clark, education specialist for the USBE.

The state is also investing at colleges. “We can’t just prepare the teachers we have right now,” Throndsen said. “We need the future teachers to also have this knowledge and skills.”

The state has funded the placement of six experts in the science of reading at six universities across Utah. They develop teacher preparation programs, monitor courses and work with instructors.

“We are adding expertise and depth of knowledge to the university programs to help with that preparation pathway, and to ensure our teachers are coming in with the foundational knowledge they need to be ready to teach young children to read,” Throndsen said.

In order to receive their teacher’s license in Utah, candidates must pass the Foundations of Reading assessment. Under SB127, universities are now required to prepare teacher candidates to pass the exam at no cost to the participant.

Throndsen said providing training and supports to teachers also will increase early-career retention. “Our retention rates for early career teachers is low,” she said. “It’s one of the lower in the nation.”

She estimates that Utah loses 43% of teachers in their first five years, largely because they don’t feel like they’re making a difference. The hope is that by better preparing teachers, they will help create and see changes.

“That’s what keeps people in that profession; when they can see that what they’re doing is having an impact,” Throndsen said.

Helping students become literate is crucial, she added, as it predicts quality of life in adulthood. For example, nearly 70% of incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Illiteracy “predicts whether you go to jail,” Throndsen said. “It predicts whether you need to be on food stamps. It predicts so many things. Being able to read is kind of that ticket to success in life.”