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State makes small gain in third-grade reading

By MADDISON BOOTH, Alabama Daily News

AUBURN, Ala. – Twenty-two percent of Alabama public school third graders were not reading on grade level this spring, according to their annual Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program testing results.  That represents 11,725 students statewide and a slight improvement from 23% in 2021 testing.

A recent report from the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows the proficiency levels by school systems and individual elementary schools. More than 50 schools saw 50% or more of their third graders end the school year without being able to read on grade level, according to the PARCA analysis.

The slight improvement in reading performance statewide comes amid implementation of the 2019 Alabama Literacy Act, which requires students in kindergarten through third grade who were identified as having reading struggles to be given extra classroom instruction, progress monitoring and read-at-home plans. The act also increased funding for reading initiatives, including summer programs.

“I’m very pleased with how things are going with the Literacy Act and with the success that our students are having learning to read,” said Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who co-sponsored the act.

The 2021-2022 school year was originally supposed to be the beginning of the act’s retention policy, meaning third graders scoring below reading level may not be allowed to advance to fourth grade. However, many state legislators called for a delay in this requirement, citing the negative effects Covid had on education statewide. In April, Gov. Ivey approved delaying the retention requirement until the 2023-2024 school year.

Collins said she believes the retention requirement will do even more to improve the state’s literacy rates.

“I do think that retention piece is the part that’s going to get everybody’s attention,” she said. “If (students) are not reading by third grade and we promote them, then we’re really setting them up to fail for the rest of their lives.”

In October of 2021, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama found that almost 12,000 third graders would be eligible to be held back if the retention requirement began in 2022.

In a recent statement released by the state education department, they said that even though 22% of third grade students did not meet reading proficiency standards, not all of those students would be held back if the retention policy were in place this year.

The 2022 legislative session brought various changes to the Literacy Act, including exempting two categories of students from the retention policy: students with individualized education plans who don’t take standardized tests and English language learners who have been enrolled for less than three years.

These students, as well as students who have previously been held back a grade, would in most situations qualify for what the education department called “good cause exemptions” to the retention rules.

Many Alabama schools with high- to moderate-poverty levels had less than 22% of third grade students score below reading proficiency on this year’s ACAP. 

“I think some of that is because the Literacy Act puts regional coaches in those high-need areas, so they’ve had special attention,” Collins said. 

Those coaches give reading instruction not only to students but teachers as well.

Collins said she has also been looking at the idea of placing auxiliary teachers in K-3 areas in these more impoverished areas, but for now “we’re moving in the right direction for sure,” she said.

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