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Low math, reading scores have state leaders looking for options

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A north Alabama lawmaker says he plans on introducing a bill for next year’s regular session that would seriously address the state’s drastically low math scores.

Only 24% of Alabama’s public school fourth-graders were labeled as proficient or better on a springtime math assessment taken this year.

For eighth-graders, it was even worse: just 14%.

Those are significant, but not unexpected, drops from previous statewide assessments, according to an analysis released this week from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama.

“We anticipated that the math scores were going to be severely depressed from our already low numbers because of COVID,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News on Wednesday.

Orr said he and math and education professionals have been working for about six months on a bill to improve math education in elementary schools.

Details aren’t yet available, but Orr said he plans to file it in advance of the 2022 legislative session.

The goal is to get students math proficient by the time they leave fifth grade.

“The bill will require significant commitment by the state and the education community, but as I see it, we have no other option. We have to do better.”

Orr said his bill would require hiring more elementary math coaches and other components to improve math results, Orr said. It could also include mandating that university education programs teach the same approved math curriculum to new teachers before they enter the classroom.

There are other components to the bill that are being fleshed out, but Orr said he is confident that they will be “game changers” in improving math scores over time.

“We are not preparing children for the future and to live successful lives if they can’t perform basic math calculations,” Orr said.

The state took similar action to address deficiencies in student reading by passing the Alabama Literacy Act, which includes requirements for enhanced teacher training, student screenings and additional help for struggling readers, including summer programs. Under the law, students who cannot read proficiently by third grade would be retained starting in the 2022 school year.

Also included in PARCA’s analysis was an estimation that 23% of third-graders, about 12,000 students,  could potentially be held back next spring because they can’t read at grade level.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey told ADN that estimation is accurate if the state school board decides to go with the recommended “cut score”, or what score on the standardized tests that determine who should be held back under the Alabama Literacy Act.

The state’s school board is charged with setting the cut score and are set to take a vote on it during November’s school board meeting.

During last week’s state school board work session, the state’s Technical Advisory Committee recommended delaying the hold-back provision for at least one year but preferred a two-year delay in order to get better testing data.

Juan D’Brot, of the National Center for Assessment and lead facilitator of the state’s Technical Advisory Committee for testing, explained to the board that it would prefer to have at least two years of testing data, where students did not experience the kind of COVID-related learning disruptions seen in the last year and a half, before deciding on how many students should be held back.

D’Brot said the delay would also ensure that all other supporting aspects of the Literacy Act are properly being followed through as well.

“I do think that this is a question of not just the claim of a student being ready, but also is the support in place for when a kid is retained, and what do you do about it,” D’Brot said.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who originally sponsored the Literacy Act legislation and chairs the House Education Policy Committee, told ADN that she has not decided yet on delaying the holdback provision of the bill.

“I think we’re at a starting point to look at all the data,” Collins said Wednesday.

Collins said she would have a better idea of whether or not to change the act after today’s meeting with the Literacy Act Task Force, the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Dyslexia Advisory Committee and the Committee for Grade Level Reading.

Mark Dixon, who leads the A+ Education Partnership agreed.

“A full review of the data is underway by a diverse group of stakeholders. Right now, the focus needs to remain on ensuring every student can read and maintaining the momentum created by the Literacy Act toward that goal,” Dixon said. “Any discussion about a delay, should be coupled with more funding and supports to get students and teachers the help they need.

But some lawmakers are planning to delay the Literacy Act retention provisions via legislation. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, has already filed a a delay bill and plans to push the issue in the 2022 session that starts in January.

As it passed both the Senate and House in the spring, but was vetoed by Gov. Kay Ivey, Smitherman’s bill would have delayed the holdback requirement until the 2024-2025 school year.

Smitherman said education is still being affected by COVID and students shouldn’t be held back based on circumstances beyond their control.

“But we’re years away from that right now, just based on the pandemic we’re still in,” Smitherman said.

“…We’ve still got children who can’t get on the Internet,” he said. “We’ve got to provide instruction and give students a chance to learn.”

The Alabama Association of School Boards last session supported a delay in the retention component of the act for at least one year. Now that they’ve seen the recent data, the association maintains that is still the best course of action.

“We strongly support delaying retention one year at a time, based on what the data shows,” Dana Vandiver, the association’s public relations director, said Wednesday.

Even if the recommended cut score is approved and the holdback provision isn’t delayed, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be 12,000 third-graders being held back next school year.

There are a number of other steps to help non-proficient third-graders gain ground this year and move on to fourth grade, including summer school programs that had increased funding and enrollments this year. There are also multiple “good cause exemptions” for English language learning students or students with a disability.

“That (12,000) snap shot is from the spring, after a tough COVID year,” Orr said. “I think it’s a little premature to hit the panic button.”

Mackey said he personally is leaning more toward delaying the holdback provision for one year but said that doesn’t mean other pieces of the act, like the summer learning reading camps, would be delayed as well.

“The commitment from the department is we push full steam ahead, no matter what happens with the cut score or the retention part,” Mackey said.

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