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Reading scores concern school board as Literacy Act takes effect

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – As many as 12,000 Alabama students could have been held back this year if the Alabama Literacy Act, which requires third graders to demonstrate a certain level of reading proficiency, were in full effect today.

The Literacy Act will go into effect for the 2023-24 school year, however, and during a Alabama State Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, members discussed potential outreach methods to inform parents of the looming reading proficiency requirement, with new data showing 11,663 students in danger of being held back in 2024.

Passed in 2019, the Literacy Act introduced regular reading assessments for K-3 students, first implemented during the current 2022-23 school year. Largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers postponed one provision of the law – which would mandate that students who cannot read proficiently by the third grade be held back – until 2024. 

The law also includes programs like reading camps to help struggling readers achieve proficiency over the summer to be ready to matriculate to fourth grade.  Such programs, along with additional assessments, would largely reduce the number of students held back.

State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey said during the meeting that the delay in the full implementation of the Literacy Act was “good,” as it gave state educators time to try and address reading proficiency struggles. Were the law to be in effect during the 2021-22 school year, approximately 23% of third graders would have been held back.

Yet despite the extra time to prepare, Mackey said low reading proficiency among some students was still “an ongoing challenge,” and that efforts needed to be made to make parents aware of the new requirements.

‘This is a problem now, and we’ve got to get students up’

During the meeting, board members reviewed new scoring data from the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program, a standards-based assessment test that measures English language arts, math and science proficiency.

The preliminary data showed results for the spring semester of 2023. Comparing the latest scores with those from spring 2022 showed a positive trend, but a small one.

“So we’re seeing some consistency throughout, even though it may not be the great gains that we would love,” said Maggie Hicks, coordinator with the state Education Department. “But we’re still seeing improvement.”

In the English language arts ACAP, most grades saw modest improvements in demonstrating proficiency, with the biggest gain being among fifth graders, 56% of which demonstrated a strong-to-advanced proficiency, up nine percentage points from 2022. Third and eighth graders, however, saw modest decreases in scores when compared to 2022.

See below for the new preliminary ACAP scoring data.

While only a modest improvement, Mackey said the numbers were at least “moving in the right direction,” and noted that for the first time, all grade levels had demonstrated at least a 50% strong proficiency in English language arts.

Despite the positive trend, board members still noted a looming problem on their hands.

“Based on this year’s testing, had we just looked at test scores and nothing else, we would have had 12,843 (third grade) students (potentially held back this year) – that’s how many scored below grade level on the initial test,” Mackey said.

“And then 11,663 second graders (are in danger of being held back in 2024 as third graders). In the worst-case scenario, (approximately) 12,000 students would have been held back this year.”

Mackey went on to explain that the actual number of students held back would likely be less due to there being several steps between a student failing a reading assessment and actually being held back, and estimated the actual number to be “somewhere probably in the 4,000-5,000 student range.”

Even with the conservative estimate, board members were still concerned at how they could reduce those numbers further, and asked Mackey what outreach plans there were to notify parents of the looming requirements.

Currently, the state department of education sends notices to a school district alerting them of students in danger of being held back under the Literacy Act. The responsibility to notify parents then rests on the districts themselves.

“We don’t have a way of getting them to the parents; we provide the reports, we give them to the district, and we assume – and hope – that everybody sent them out,” Mackey said. “But we don’t really have a way to check that unless we get a call that somebody did not.”

Tracie West, board vice president, suggested additional outreach efforts might be necessary given the high number of students in danger of being held back.

“I think that our families are not aware that we’re a year away from retaining students,” she said.

Mackey said that, at least based on accounts of various superintendents, one potential cause for the high number of students not reading proficiently is the discrepancy in education level of recent first graders, who, while some are reading at a first-grade level, others have yet to learn letters. He went on to say that teachers are forced to use a considerable amount of time catching those students up on what are considered preschool skills, taking time away from more grade-appropriate lessons.

“So the problem is not that there’s not instruction going on, it’s that the instruction is not on grade level, and they’re being tested on grade level,” Mackey said. “That’s what I’m hearing from superintendents. That’s their biggest challenge, is how do (they) teach third grade level when I’m still teaching first grade-level skills. And in our poorest and most challenged communities, that’s an issue.”

The first grade education discrepancy described by Mackey has also been a major focus of Alabama Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, who has carried a bill for years that would require students to either attend kindergarten – which is not mandatory in Alabama – or pass a first-grade readiness assessment. Warren’s latest effort to see her bill passed failed at the last moment during the 2023 legislative session, though will be brought back in 2024.

After the meeting, West told Alabama Daily News that discussions were ongoing as to how to better reach out to parents about the upcoming reading proficiency requirements. 

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