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House passes Literacy Act changes; holdback delay pending

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Rep. Terri Collins’s bill making updates to the Alabama Literacy Act passed the House unanimously Wednesday — minus any delay to the third-grade holdback requirement.

Collins, R-Decatur, at the suggestion of Gov. Kay Ivey, was seeking a one year delay of the Literacy Act’s retention provision. However, she accepted an amendment removing the delay language completely. In a compromise of sorts, Collins said she would allow a related Senate bill with a two-year delay to address the timeline while her bill makes changes aimed at helping struggling readers catch up as the go through elementary school.

House Bill 220 passed 103-0.

As originally enacted in 2019, the Alabama Literacy Act keeps third grade students who can’t read proficiently from being promoted to the fourth grade starting this spring. State leaders and education groups in the past six months have spoken in favor of a one-year delay due to a lack of testing data.

The Senate on Tuesday approved Senate Bill 200 from Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, delaying the retention provision until spring 2024. Smitherman has argued that COVID-19 caused so much disruption to children’s education that it would be unfair to hold them back this year or next year. His bill still needs two votes in a House committee and then the full chamber. Right now, it is the only delay option in the Legislature.

Collins Wednesday evening told Alabama Daily News she was asked by House and Senate leadership to work with Smitherman on a compromise and agreed to take the delay language out of her bill.

Smitherman’s bill will be in Collins’ House Education Policy Committee next week.

Collins said the remaining act changes in her HB220 clarify the act and make it stronger.

“Those are my priorities,” she said.

Gov. Kay Ivey vetoed last year a similar effort from Smitherman, then later said a one-year delay was needed to get more testing data. 

On Wednesday evening, Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said she wouldn’t speculate about what the Legislature might do next, but Ivey has been clear that implementing the act fully is a must.

“The governor recommended a one year delay so that further data could be collected and assessed in order to implement the Literacy Act,” Maiola said. “If both chambers of the Legislature approve a delay this session, it is imperative to the governor that the Literacy Act has a final, set date for full implementation to ensure the best outcome for our students. This issue is too critical to continue considering additional delays after this session.”

According to a Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama analysis of recent testing scores, about 12,000 students could potentially be held back this spring because they can’t read at grade level.

The Literacy Act also includes requirements for enhanced teacher training, student screenings and additional help for struggling readers, including summer programs. 

Collins did not speak much about the potential retention delay on the House floor Wednesday evening, saying the Senate bill would deal with that. She did share some recent data about the law’s impact.

She said the law has a special focus on the bottom performing 5% of schools, funding literacy coaches for them. Since the original act became law, 37 of those 52 schools moved out of the bottom 5%, Collins said.

“And that’s during COVID,” she said. “(The act is) working.”

Some of the changes in HB220 specify:

  • Special needs students who have an individual education plan and don’t take the state’s standardized test are exempt from the retention;
  • English language learners have three years after enrollment before the retention applies to them;
  • No child will be retained in third grade more than once. 

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