The federal Reading First program was a nationwide literacy program specifically targeted at increasing the number of successful young readers in Grades K–3. In May 2003, the U.S. Department of Education approved the $72 million, six-year Wisconsin Reading First (WRF) grant. The goal of WRF was to ensure that every Wisconsin student could read at or above grade level by the end of Grade 3, with a focus on closing the achievement gaps between students of color or economically disadvantaged students and their peers. The program model included targeted professional development on scientifically based reading research practices, high-quality materials, training, the use of assessment to improve instruction, and instructional support in the form of a dedicated district coordinator.
The evaluation relied on three primary sources of data to track program implementation: classroom observations; an online teacher survey; and interviews with principals, teachers, and literacy specialists conducted during annual site visits at both WRF and comparison schools. The evaluation of program impact examined improvement over time in student achievement with respect to changes in reading proficiency relative to state performance standards and the reading performance of students in a matched comparison sample of similar schools that did not receive WRF funding.
The evaluation showed that the implementation of the program was quite strong. Overall, WRF teachers received extensive, high-quality professional development in the five essential components of reading. These teachers reported receiving substantial individualized support from WRF coordinators—in marked contrast to support received by teachers from literacy staff at comparison schools. However, the impact of the program was not consistent. The most promising finding was that WRF schools showed greater achievement at Grade 3 and higher growth rates than their counterparts in the comparison schools on the TerraNova reading comprehension assessment. However, no program impact was found for the TerraNova vocabulary assessment or word analysis assessment or in the percentage of students from WRF schools who achieved proficient or above on the state reading assessment. Furthermore, while there were some significant differences for subpopulations in specific years, including initial early gains for African-American WRF students between 2004 and 2005 and improvements for students with disabilities in 2007, these differences were not sustained or consistent.