Alabama will soon require that all third-graders be able to read on grade level before they graduate, but state educators have yet to decide how to measure reading level or to how to best prepare young students for the coming hurdle.
This year’s first-graders will be the first to have to meet the new standard or risk being held back after they finish the third grade. And recent test scores suggest about half of students could struggle, as just over half of Alabama’s third-graders last year did not test as proficient in reading.
“There’s a lot of anxiety,” Alabama Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey said, referring to school officials. But that’s to be expected with a wide-ranging law like this, he said, adding that as educators learn more about the requirements the mood is shifting. “They’re becoming more on the excited side than the anxiety side.”
Mackey spoke to the 20-member literacy task force on Wednesday in Montgomery, encouraging them at the start of the full-day meeting held to hammer out more details of the law’s requirements. The task force includes classroom teachers, school administrators, as well as reading specialists and college professors from across Alabama.
“Things are moving forward,” Mackey said, “but time is progressing and there is still much work to be done.”
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, championed the Alabama Literacy Act’s passage and attended the meeting to watch the work being done to implement a law she calls a game-changer for children in Alabama.
“While I know our local areas are anxious to get answers to every single question (about requirements of the law),” Collins said, “my goal has always been to get it right before we got it fast.”
“I think this group is the group that will help us get it right.”
The Alabama Literacy Act, passed by lawmakers last spring, requires school officials to identify struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade and offer multiple layers of supports to those students. If students aren’t reading on grade level by the end of the third grade, they can be held back.
Alabama is one of 17 states that now require holding back students not reading on grade level by the end of their third grade school year, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
“Good cause” exemptions, including students who have already been held back twice or students learning the English language, allow some students to move on without reaching grade-level benchmarks on tests.
Another eight states allow for holding students back but don’t require it.
The test that will be used to make the final determination of whether a third-grader can be promoted to the fourth grade is being rolled out for the first time this spring. Third-graders who do not reach a benchmark score in spring 2022 – which won’t be calculated until the spring 2021 tests are completed – could be held back.
Where that bar is set on the final test matters a lot. If the bar is proficient, based on 55,000 Alabama third-graders who took the reading test last spring, 52%, or nearly 29,000 were not proficient, meaning they scored at level one or level two.
If the bar is set lower, at level one, this year’s results would have left more than 13,000 in the third grade for a second year.
Students with limited English language skills and those with disabilities had the lowest levels of proficiency on the standardized test.
- Produce a list of tests schools can use to determine whether students in kindergarten through third grade are struggling and why,
- Develop a system of training teachers from when they are in college throughout their teaching years, and
- Recommend core reading and intervention programs schools can use to get children reading on grade level by the third grade.
The task force took on the job of reviewing tests during their meeting, and spent hours discussing the merits of the tests vendors submitted in response to the education department’s request for proposal to serve as screeners for problems and adequately measure the reading level of students in kindergarten through third grade.
Their recommendations now go back to the state Department of Education for final consideration.
Officials said most schools are already using tests to do just that, but the law requires the task force to produce a list of vetted tests for schools and districts to use. That list should be produced in January, according to officials. State lawmakers provided funding for those tests this year, so they’ll be available to schools at no cost.
School officials will need to work quickly once those tests are known, though, as the law requires schools to offer summer reading programs to struggling readers – identified by tests on the as-yet-to-be-produced list. Summer program planning typically begins in late January and February, officials said.
Teacher training is a big part of the Literacy Act. Teachers in kindergarten through third grade are required to be trained in the science of how children learn to read. The task force will develop a continuum of training, grounded in the science of reading, for teachers while they’re still in college through their professional careers.
Dr. Antonio Fierro, a national reading consultant hired by the department of education, answered questions about LETRS training, a type of training that helps teachers use techniques proven by years of scientific study about how children learn to read.
Fierro said it’s important for teachers to receive the full two years of LETRS training, which takes about 100 hours. Teachers can use online resources while they wait to be trained in LETRS, he said, but there is no substitute.
Around 2,700 teachers are starting the first year of LETRS training this year, and about 250 are now in their second year. Around 600 teachers are on a waitlist, but there are more than 20,000 teachers statewide in those four grade levels, according to state officials.
LETRS training is administered through the Alabama Reading Initiative, the once-nationally-lauded program now being revamped and refocused on the early grades. Pre-K teachers are receiving LETRS training through the Department of Early Childhood Education.
Just under 200 school administrators are receiving LETRS training tailored to the needs of administrators, state officials said.
Task force members were given a draft of an implementation guide for the Literacy Act, modeled after Mississippi’s guide from 2016, officials said. The guide is a work in process, Assistant State Superintendent Dr. Elisabeth Davis said, but when completed should give school officials a clear pathway to meeting requirements of the law.
A+ Education Partnership President Mark Dixon moderated the task force meeting and said a lot of progress was made. “They’ve set their work for 2020,” Dixon said, “to focus on two areas: core reading and interventions – curriculum to support teachers – and developing a system of professional learning.”