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Most Appleton Students Aren’t Reading at Grade Level

Here’s how the district plans to fix that

AnnMarie Hilton | Appleton Post-Crescent

APPLETON – Changes are coming to how the Appleton Area School District teaches students how to read after a recent audit showed a need for improvement — and soon.

Since October, the district has been conducting an audit of its English language arts (ELA) curriculum with the help of CESA 6. District administrators reviewed findings from the audit and plans for next steps at a school board work session Monday.

Superintendent Greg Hartjes underscored the “incredible importance” of literacy and reading education for students.

“It’s critical to the learning that is done at every level of education,” he said.

The district is planning to make changes to curriculum in the coming years at all levels from kindergarten to high school. Elementary students should see greater emphasis on learning letter sounds, and high schoolers should have increased work on comprehension strategies. All grades should expect more read-alouds and small group work.

Most Appleton students are not reading at grade level

In September, the district reviewed data from the Wisconsin Forward exam for students in grades three through eight.

According to that data, fewer than half of the district’s students are reading at or above grade level.

Some grades are worse than others. Last year, about four in 10 of the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders were reading at or above grade level. Just two, or maybe three, of 10 eighth-graders are reading at grade level, based on test score data.

Here’s a grade-by-grade look at how many students are at or above grade level from the past two years of available data for Appleton students. The two years listed under each grade represent two different classes of students. If you want to track the same students year to year, look at 2020-21 for fifth grade, for example, and then 2021-22 for sixth grade.

Third grade

  • 2020-21: 27.9%
  • 2021-22: 34.5%

Fourth grade

  • 2020-21: 35%
  • 2021-22: 41.2%

Fifth grade

  • 2020-21: 28.6%
  • 2021-22: 41.5%

Sixth grade

  • 2020-21: 36.2%
  • 2021-22: 43.7%

Seventh grade

  • 2020-21: 33.1%
  • 2021-22: 36.4%

Eighth grade

  • 2020-21: 28.9%
  • 2021-22: 23.9%

When the district reviewed this data with the school board last fall, administrators were careful to note that there were atypical variables over the past couple years that could shape the data.

Appleton current uses ‘balanced literacy’ curriculum, but it isn’t working

Appleton isn’t alone in turning a critical eye to its reading curriculum. There’s a national discussion about how best to actually teach students to read.

The Appleton Area School District has been using a method called “balanced literacy” for its ELA curriculum. It doesn’t include a lot of phonics or explicit instruction, instead emphasizing independent reading and using “leveled” books — a progressive sequence of books that get more challenging.

Another method of teaching, “structured literacy,” uses explicit instruction to teach students the building blocks of language such as sounds, syllables and letters so they can put all the pieces together and ultimately read and comprehend. This method is especially helpful for students with dyslexia or other learning disabilities, experts say.

As part of the audit, CESA 6 did 75-minute unannounced classroom observations last fall at each school. Steve Harrison — assistant superintendent of assessment, curriculum and instruction — said the results from the observations aren’t the full story since it reflects just one day in each classroom, but they give the district a baseline of information.

Observers looked for a mix of research-based practices being used in the classrooms during reading and writing lessons. Appleton excelled at creating opportunities for students to be curious about words and providing age-appropriate texts, but there was little instruction about sounding out words or practicing writing out the words they heard read to them.

Those observations and other information gathered concluded that the district lacks clarity and consistency in its ELA curriculum. There needs to be a shift toward structured literacy and phonics, according to the presentation from Harrison and other administrators.

But this isn’t just coming from the numbers and spreadsheets. Hartjes said teachers have come to him saying changes have to happen and the district has to rely more on the research showing how to actually teach kids to read.

Appleton has to make changes, but it’ll take a few years

Revamping the ELA curriculum won’t happen in one day, or even one school year. But the district knows it needs to happen.

“The need to change? We’ve concluded that we have to,” Hartjes said at Monday’s meeting.

A point of emphasis during the meeting: making sure the district has a plan in place to monitor its progress and ensure any changes it makes are actually working to better support student learning.

It’s still in early stages, but the district laid out a plan for the next two school years for strategic improvements.

The 2023-24 year will be spent working with staff to prepare for the shift in curriculum. There will be professional development and piloting done with new materials to make sure teachers and principals are prepared for 2024-25 when the new ELA curriculum will be fully implemented.


Reach AnnMarie Hilton at ahilton@gannett.com or 920-370-8045. Follow her on Twitter at @hilton_annmarie.

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