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Alabama adopts new testing, retention standard

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama State Board of Education voted to adopt a new testing standard Thursday that will determine whether or not a third grader moves onto the next grade, a benchmark that could see as many as 12,000 students held back in 2024.

In 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law the Literacy Act, which implemented steps aimed at improving reading proficiency for K-3 students, among them a requirement for third graders to demonstrate reading proficiency before entering the fourth grade. Scheduled to kick in during the 2021-2022 school year, that requirement was ultimately postponed to 2024 by lawmakers.

Yet despite growing concerns among educators that third grade retention could increase by as much as 600%, State Superintendent Eric Mackey made it clear Thursday that there could be no more delays.

“This is the year – there will be no further delay barring any legislative action, and I’ve not heard from one legislator that they intend to delay the implementation of the retention piece of the Literacy Act,” Mackey said during the meeting at the Gordon Persons Building in Montgomery. “This is the year that will happen with these current third graders.”

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey.

The new scoring standard proposed by the board would require third grade students to score a minimum of 435 on the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program English test to advance. The minimum score was recommended to the board by the Minneapolis-based company Data Recognition Corporation, as well as the board’s own Technical Advisory Committee, which is composed of statisticians and psychometricians.

“I’ve been asked to say how many students do we think would be retained; that’s not an easily answerable question, (but) probably around 10,000 to 12,000 in the first round,” Mackey said.

While the 12,000 figure is significant, Mackey clarified that many third graders who score below the proposed threshold of 435 would have an opportunity over the summer for remediation and to retake the test. He also said students who failed could also move forward under special circumstances such as a good cause exemption or a portfolio assessment.

“I do think we’ll see our retention rate in third grade go up significantly, probably 500 to 600%, but that’s the whole purpose, to make sure that students are ready to move on to fourth grade,” he continued.

Alabama State Board of Education member Stephanie Bell.

Not all board members were in agreement on setting the minimum score to 435, however. The top score on the reading test is 780.

“I truly believe that this cut score does not represent grade-level proficiency for our students,” said board member Jackie Ziegler.

“By lowering the cut score, I think we’re giving a false read not only to our students, but to our parents and to our community. They deserve to know what truly is a proficient reader, and it is imperative that we take that responsibility to provide that clear understanding. If you don’t have that, can you have honest progress for those kids?”

Board member Stephanie Bell voiced opposition as well, and said the board would be doing a “great disservice to the children in this state” by setting the score “too low,” as well as to parents by giving them a “mistaken assumption that their child can read.”

Despite the opposition, which also included Board member Wayne Reynolds, the proposal ultimately passed in a vote of 5-3.

Following the meeting, Mackey told members of the press that adopting the Literacy Act in full and holding back students was a “complicated matter,” but that the more testing data they can collect going forward, the better they can improve it in the future in terms of retaining less students.

Part of that full implementation will be coordinating with schools to manage what could be a large increase in the number of third graders during the 2024-2025 school year.

“If these students don’t make it, and they don’t take summer programming and pass a second test, they’re going to stay in third grade; our principals have got to prepare for that,” Mackey said. 

“Principals have got to know they’re going to have more students in third grade than they’re used to, that might (mean) moving some teachers, it might mean that they have to reorganize a whole school district.”

Mackey also cautioned schools from lowering teaching standards to accommodate retained third graders, as doing so could broaden the divide between students in terms of reading proficiency even further.

“We are strongly encouraging principals (to not) create some special class for just the kids who are not high-level readers,” he said. “That’s a bad idea because generally what happens then is that teachers end up having to teach to a low standard – we want to teach to a high standard.”

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