Literacy bill focuses on early reading efforts, holding back third graders with poor skills

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Proposed legislation to hold back Alabama third-graders who don’t have sufficient reading skills will dedicate more time, training and financial resources to early literacy efforts, but some educators are concerned about aspects of the bill.

“If a child can’t read by third grade, their chances for retention later go up, their chances of not graduating go up,” Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said. She plans to file legislation called the Alabama Literacy Act this week.

Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Craig Pouncey said Tuesday he hasn’t yet seen the legislation, but has concerns about the effectiveness of retention. 

“Every year that a child is retained in elementary school, it lessens the chance of them graduating high school,” Pouncey said. “That’s been well established.”  

Sally Smith, executive director of the Alabama School Board Association, on Tuesday said her group applauds the effort to focus on early literacy. But she hopes work continues among lawmakers and educators, particularly about the retention requirement.

“While we don’t think retention is the best option, we certainly want to have intervention efforts to get students up to grade level as soon as possible,” Smith said.

A draft of the bill provided by Collins does not define how reading skills would be measured, but creates a task force to make recommendations 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.

Collins said she spoke to a variety of education groups about the bill and made changes based on their feedback.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey said he had talked with Collins and given her some immediate thoughts on the bill but asked for more time to have literacy and dyslexia experts in the Alabama State Department of Education gather more feedback.

Mackey said he likes that the bill will increase the staff of the Alabama Reading Initiative, a program of the ALSDE, so that it reaches more schools. He also likes its summer school component. 

Mackey said he has concerns about the holdback portion of the bill unless the state puts strong intervention and prevention elements in place. Those will be costly, he said. The summer school component of the legislation alone will likely costs tens of millions of dollars, he said.

“I do think it’s a wise use of resources, but we have to be honest up front about the cost,” he said. 

Collins said she’d talked to budget leaders in the State House about the need for funding for the legislation, but she didn’t yet have an exact cost.

According to a 30-page draft, the legislation will:

  • Require 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.
  • Require schools provide summer reading camps to all K-3 students identified with a reading deficiency.
  • Require 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.
  • Provide 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% percent performing schools would receive limited literacy support from an Alabama Reading Initiative regional literacy specialist assigned to multiple schools. 

For teacher training, beginning in the 2020-2021 academic year, public teacher preparation will require no less than nine credit hours of reading or literacy coursework, or both, based on the science of learning to read, including multi-sensory strategies in foundation reading skills. 

Current teachers will also receive more professional development. Identifying and assisting students with dyslexia is mentioned several times in the draft legislation.

One of the things Mackey wants to see in the legislation is a way for local school leaders to  move to the fourth grade students who had proven their reading abilities in ways other than the state assessment.

“We absolutely would feel very strong that there has to be local discretion,” Mackey said. “Some students are not good test takers, especially in third grade.”

He said South Carolina had the strongest third grade holdback law.

“They have a test, but they also bring in the expertise of the teacher and the parents,” he said. 

State Board of Education member Jeff Newman, whose northwest Alabama district includes part of Tuscaloosa County, agreed.

“No one knows that child’s ability like the educators who work with him every day,” Newman, a former superintendent, said.

Senate education budget committee chairman Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is sponsoring Collins’ bill in the Senate.

“For several years, I have worked with legislative staff in drafting several different third grade holdback bills,” Orr said Monday. “None was ever filed because I always believed that to deal with this issue a bill had to be much more comprehensive for early grade reading and less punitive. Rep. Collins has succeeded in providing a good starting point to begin this discussion in how we can improve early grade reading levels. Her bill takes a wholistic approach and I am pleased to sponsor it with her.”

Sixteen states have third grade holdback laws, including every state surrounding Alabama. Eight others allow retention but don’t require it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Collins said the Alabama proposal is modeled after legislation Mississippi lawmakers approved in 2013 and implemented in 2014-2015. Students who score in the lowest achievement level on the state annual accountability assessment are not promoted to the fourth grade.

The initial pass rate has increased every year since the test was first administered, Mississippi media have reported, rising from 85 percent in 2015 to 93 percent in 2018. Students have three chances to pass the test.

The Mississippi law has caused “great gains” in that state’s National Assessment of Education Progress scores, Collins said. 

In 2017, 31 percent of Alabama fourth graders were reading at or above proficient designation, according to the NAEP results. Nationally, that number was 37 percent. In Mississippi, 27 percent were at or above proficient, up from 26 percent in 2015 and 21 percent in 2013. 

Alabama’s percentage of proficient readers was the same in 2017 as it was in 2013.

“We want to see growth in our achievement until all our students read on grade level,” Collins said. 

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, is the Senate Education Policy chairman.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s really produced good results in Mississippi,” he said. “It’s something I’m willing to look at and support, if it’s written in a good way.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Alabama eighth-graders rank 49th in math and 46th in reading on NAEP results.

“Those numbers are not acceptable and I continue to be in favor of major education reform to improve our ratings,” Marsh said. “I look forward to reviewing this bill when it gets up to the Senate and working with the education community to evaluate how it fits into a comprehensive education reform plan.”

Collins  said the bill will be in the House Education Policy Committee, which she chairs, in the next few weeks.