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Faced with stagnant reading outcomes, Wisconsin is expanding its use of an assessment tool called PALS – short for Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening – with young children in early education settings and in early elementary school grades.

“For years, Wisconsin ranked among the states with the highest reading scores,” according to the state’s Read to Lead Task Force report, which was released in early 2012. “However, over the past 15 years, our state’s performance relative to the nation’s has been especially troubling.”

In addition to falling NAEP scores (National Assessment of Educational Progress), the report points out that, “The picture is also quite troubling in Milwaukee where both higher and lower income students rank below the same subgroups in the average large urban district by a statistically significant margin.”

The task force’s recommendations led to legislation meant to “increase reading achievement across the state” that Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker signed into law in 2012, according to the PALS Wisconsin’s website. The law called for assessing all 5K students (five-year-olds in pre-k) who attend the state’s district and charter schools. PALS was chosen as the assessment tool. In June, Governor Walker signed a budget requiring that by 2014 children in 4K (four-year-olds in pre-k) through second grade will be screened using PALS.


“The assessment is a scripted, oral exam administered by a teacher to students one-on-one and in groups, and gauges children’s alphabet knowledge, letter sounds, print awareness or how to hold a book,” according to an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Teachers administer the screener two or three times during the year.”

Like Iowa, which we wrote about last week, Wisconsin is assessing children’s literacy skills, identifying those who are struggling, and providing more reading help for those who need it.

“Early childhood teachers already focus on many of the concepts addressed by the screener, but the PALS system helps track student results and recommends pupil groupings to help students make more progress,” the article says, adding, “The hope is that the screener puts more children on the path to reading proficiency so that they are prepared to handle the more rigorous standards in English and language arts set forth by the Common Core State Standards, a voluntary set of academic guidelines…”

“Wisconsin’s budget set aside $2.5 million this year to fund a universal literacy screener for kindergartners and first-graders, as part of a number of initiatives aimed at ramping up reading achievement in the state after years of stagnant test scores,” the article says.

PALS was developed by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, according to the PALS Wisconsin website. “There are three main PALS assessments currently being used in Wisconsin Public Schools—PALS-PreK, PALS-K, and PALS 1-3.”

PALS-Pre-K measures name writing, alphabet knowledge, beginning sound awareness, print and word awareness, and rhyme awareness. The results are used to, “inform teachers’ planning of literacy instruction and activities in the classroom. Results help teachers determine particular reading skill areas that need additional attention in the classroom, to ensure students are receiving instruction in all of the important early literacy fundamentals,” according to the Wisconsin PALS website.

PALS-K measures phonological awareness, knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds, spelling, and recognition of words in isolation. These results are used to, “identify students who are at risk of reading difficulties, because they lag behind grade-level expectations in literacy fundamentals.” Teachers receive profiles of learners’ needs and use the profiles to plan lessons. “Thus, PALS-K results are used to guide teachers in planning literacy instruction that is matched to students’ specific literacy needs.”

Teacher Training

Wisconsin is also looking at teachers’ skills, according to the Journal Sentinel article, which says, “The Read to Lead state task force report that recommended the literacy screener also called attention to the widely varying ways in which the state’s 33 teacher preparation programs teach reading instruction…”  The article adds, “By the end of January 2014, prospective teachers will have to pass a new test meant to ensure they understand all the key facets of reading instruction.”

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Wisconsin is setting its sights high. As John Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction told the Journal Sentinel, “Wisconsin needs to be a leader on this nationwide, to close achievement gaps around reading.”