By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama State Board of Education in November approved a scoring system to determine which third graders will get promoted to fourth grade based on standardized reading tests under the Alabama Literacy Act. That system included a “cut score” of 452, the lowest score students can make to avoid getting held back.
But what does that number actually mean? How is it calculated and what does it represent for third graders’ reading abilities?
State Superintendent Eric Mackey explained that the score is the product of expert reading teachers tasked with determining what best indicates whether or not a student can read on grade level.
“There’s 96% confidence that each child that scored below 452 truly is below grade level,” Mackey told Alabama Daily News.
The top score on the reading test is 780, which is considered the “scale score” and is a conversion of the “raw score” gathered from the 24 questions students are asked for the reading portion of the yearly spring standardized testing.
The score was recommended to the state school board during its October work session meeting, at which a more in-depth explanation of how the state’s technical advisory committee for testing came up with the score.
Essentially, the test is a pass or fail exam and not everyone who passes the test will be perfect readers, Mackey said, but they have at least the necessary amount of reading skills to pass onto the fourth grade.
Mackey compared it to taking a driver’s exam.
“You either pass it or you fail it,” Mackey said. “Now some people who pass it are much better drivers than other people who pass it, but if you want your license on that day, all you care about is did I pass or did I fail.”
The Alabama Literacy Act, passed in 2019, is designed to improve Alabama’s literacy rate with a number of new support structures and reading programs intended to help struggling readers. Retention of third graders who are not reading on grade level is part of the law and meant to put accountability in the system and avoid passing on students to higher grades without proper reading skills.
If a student scores lower than 452, there are still a number of steps they can take to advance onto the fourth grade. Students will be given the chance to take a supplemental test at another date, make a reading portfolio that demonstrates their understanding of the minimum essential reading standards or show they meet one of the good cause exemptions.
The good cause exemptions include:
- students with a disability whose individual education plan indicates that participation in the statewide assessment is not appropriate;
- English language learners who have had less than two years of instruction in English as a second language;
- students with a disability who have already received intensive reading intervention for more than two years and who have previously been retained in kindergarten, first, second or third grade;
- students who have received intensive intervention for two or more years and have already been retained for a total of two years.
Should a student be promoted to fourth grade under one of the exemptions, the state will provide intensive reading interventions and an individualized reading improvement plan from a reading coach.
Parents won’t get grades immediately after the test is taken since there are sections like a writing portion that take longer to grade, but parents will get the results before school breaks for the summer. The results of the test will be shown to parents in the “scale score” format.
Unlike the pass/fail nature of the reading scores, the scores for the state’s other standardized tests for English language arts, science and math are designated on a four-level scale. Levels three and four show students who are testing high in their grade level or even above it, level two is on grade level and level one is below grade level.
Mackey said the goal is to eventually move the reading scores to that four-level scale to show parents more detail about their students’ progress, but more time is needed for the state’s statisticians to determine where the scores should land for reading.
The law simply requires schools to determine if a student is above or below grade level, but after hearing feedback from members on the state’s literacy task force on grade level reading and the dyslexia advisory council, Mackey said they decided to pursue the four-level scale for reading.
“They felt like, if we have the data, it would be good for teachers and parents to know who’s above expectations and who is close to expectations,” Mackey said.
Mark Dixon, President of A+ Education Partnership, told ADN that the way the test results are shown and explained to parents is a critical part of the success of the Literacy Act.
“In the past we as a state have not done a good job at presenting assessment data to parents in a way that is easy to understand,” Dixon said. “I know the department is currently working on that but we want really good information for parents so not only do they just get the data, but that they understand what the data means.”
Dixon said having well-informed parents is also an important factor in improving children’s literacy abilities and their overall education.
“It’s a way to empower the parents, and not make them have to go looking for what they need but instead have the data laid out for them to show where their child is at and where you can give them additional support,” Dixon said.
Under the law as written, schools would start holding back third graders by the end of the current school year based on spring testing. However, Gov. Kay Ivey announced publicly at November’s state school board meeting that the retention piece of the Literacy act should be delayed one year.
Ivey recommended the delay after hearing that more student testing data is needed to validate the cut scores and that the past two years of COVID-interrupted schooling has made that impossible.
In order to delay the retention piece in time, the Legislature will have to approve the change during its regular session starting in January.
Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who originally sponsored the Literacy Act, has said she is supportive of the one-year delay and will introduce the bill to do so.
But some legislators still think that a one-year delay is not enough.
Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, told ADN that he plans to reintroduce a bill delaying the retention piece by two years. His bill passed the Legislature in 2021, but Ivey vetoed it saying more data was needed.
Smitherman said that since COVID-19 is still making an impact in some students’ schooling there needs to be more time to help students make up that learning loss.
“We have a bill that was passed in the pre-pandemic era and it needs to be modified and adjusted now that we’re in this pandemic,” Smitherman said.
The regular session starts January 11.