CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids middle school educators are betting on a new tool to better identify struggling readers in grades 6, 7 and 8.
The reading screener and diagnostic tool, called iAsk, is one of few that focuses on middle school students — rather than young children in kindergarten through third grade, where learning to read is a top priority.
The Iowa Assessment of Skills and Knowledge — or iAsk — was developed by the Coralville-based Foundations in Learning and tested in Cedar Rapids middle schools.
Foundations in Learning researcher Carolyn Brown said the tool can help middle school educators better serve their students — two-thirds of whom are not proficient readers, according to test scores from the National Assessment of Education Procurement.
“Middle school teachers and administrators expect that when kids come into middle school, they will have these reading foundations in place,” Brown said. “General testing tells them they’re failing to reach proficiency and fluency and comprehension, and they don’t have the tools to easily and quickly say these students lack these foundational skills.”
The online iAsk tool can quickly identify students’ areas of deficit, she said, replacing otherwise labor-intensive assessments.
“When we went out to show what we were doing, middle school teachers were desperate and hadn’t seen anything like this,” said Foundations in Learning researcher Jerry Zimmermann. “They had issues with readers but didn’t know why.”
The tool’s testing ground — the Cedar Rapids middle schools — opted to continue using the tool, said Carlos Grant, the school distric’s executive director of personalized learning and middle level education.
The cost to the district for the curricular tool — which went on the market earlier this month — is about $13,500, he said.
“We did that research last year, and the findings of that research were great,” Grant said. “A lot of our kids made a lot of growth.”
When research began, about 14 percent of the sixth-grade students in the tool’s experimental group were considered at-risk for reading comprehension, while about 55 percent were considered proficient readers.
Afterward, Grant said only 10 percent were considered at-risk while the rate of students’ reading proficiently jumped to 76 percent.
“When you show 20 percent growth, it’s a sign it can really make an impact on what you’re trying to do,” Grant said.
Students at McKinley and Wilson middle schools are the first schools to implement iAsk, Grant said, as the district works to improve adolescent literacy.
“Traditionally, the idea was that we teach literacy and reading in a kindergarten through third, kindergarten through fifth-grade setting, and then when we get to the secondary level, we transition to talking about literature,” Grant said. “We’re missing a big gap of students who are coming from elementary to middle school.”
The new iAsk tool allows schools to identify those students and work on their skills, he said.
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