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Reading proficiency, third grade holdback bill approved in House committee

By CAROLINE BECK, Aalabama Daily News.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill approved in the House Education Policy Committee on Wednesday would provide resources and programs to get more Alabama third-graders reading proficiently and requires that those who aren’t be held back.

Rep. Terri Collins, R- Decatur, is the sponsor for the Alabama Literacy Act and told the committee that it is the result of many years of work and many meetings with different education agencies.

“I’ve read estimates that only 35 percent of our children are reading proficiently. That means 65 percent that are not,” Collins said during the public hearing in the committee she chairs. “So I hope that shows the urgency of which we need to deal with this issue.”

The Alabama State Department of Education estimates it would cost approximately $90 million annually to implement the proposal, according to a fiscal note on the bill.

House Bill 388 creates a task force to make recommendation to the Alabama State Department of Education about “comprehensive core reading and reading intervention programs, a state continuum of teacher development … and an annual list of vetted and approved” reading assessments to measure students’ abilities.

Four people spoke against the bill during the public hearing. Jessica Sanders, associate counsel for the ALSDE, said the department had two problems with the bill:  the hold-back stipulation and the creation of an additional office.

“The retention piece and the Office of Student Success are just not needed to achieve these goals, it is absolutely correct that the funding is,” Sanders said. “But in the department we already have the Office of School Improvement and the Alabama Reading Initiative that we feel covers all of the needs you are talking about.”

Collins stood by the retention measure.

“In my heart, I believe that if we pass that child out of the third grade that cannot read, we are failing that child.”

Most of the proponents were parents or educators of children with dyslexia and said they are thankful the bill would be able to help children across the state dealing with reading proficiency.

House Bill 388 also:

  • Requires beginning-of-year screenings of students in kindergarten through third grade to identify those who have a deficiency and create a “reading intervention program” for each student.
  • Requires that schools provide summer reading camps to all K-3 students identified with a reading deficiency.
  • Requires that beginning in 2021-2022, third grade students shall demonstrate sufficient reading skills for promotion to fourth grade. There are exemptions for special needs students and students with limited English language skills. No student can be held back more than twice because of the legislation.
  • Provides regional literacy specialists to give intensive support of elementary schools in the lowest-performing 5% in the state. A specialist would serve only one school. Elementary schools not among the lowest 5% performing schools would receive limited literacy support from an Alabama Reading Initiative regional literacy specialist assigned to multiple schools.

Sixteen states have third grade hold-back laws, including every state surrounding Alabama. Collins has said her legislation is modeled after Mississippi’s law. Eight other states allow retention but don’t require it.

House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, said he supported the bill and wants to see more of a combined effort with the successful, voluntary pre-K program in the state.

“Do I think this bill is perfect, no, I do not, but I think this bill forces us to look at reading levels and not just push kids along to the next grade and really look at the whole child,” Daniels said. “For me, putting more money on the front end, like with pre-K and cradle-to-pre-K, will take care of the reading level by third grade and if we can have mandatory pre-K for the state, all of those efforts could work together to solve this problem.”

Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mount Hope, said he voted for the bill because of his own personal experience with dyslexia.

“I understand the concerns out there, but to me what made the difference for me not being held back was the person who took the time to make sure I had the knowledge that I needed and I want to make sure kids have the same opportunity that I did,” Robertson said.

Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, is co-chair of the committee and voted for the bill.

Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, voted for the bill.

At the end of the hearing, Collins said that she understands the budget concerns and the retention requirement, but feels that this is the best moment to tackle these problems and that if they don’t now it may never be dealt with.

“If we keep putting this off, it will never happen,” Collins said. “I know we need to work on funding, I have said that all along that this has a high price tag and I will continue to work with both budget chairs, I have lots of doubts on this fiscal note, but I am willing to work on that and I don’t want to send down an unfunded mandate becuase then you don’t have to do it. I want us to work together to get everything right.”

The bill now moves to the Senate where Sens. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Tim Melson, R-Florence, are sponsors.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, previously said the state’s reading scores are not acceptable and he’s in favor of “major education reform to improve our ratings.”

In a Senate committee Wednesday, legislators discussed but did not vote on a bill sponsored by Marsh to allow more local tax dollars to follow students from traditional public schools to new charter schools.

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