Less than half of Alabama's second graders were proficient in English Language Arts when tested in spring 2021, but officials said they are working to get those students, now in third grade, reading at grade level by spring 2022 when their promotion will hinge on test scores.
The 2019 Alabama Literacy Act takes effect this school year and will require that third-grade students demonstrate sufficient reading skills before being promoted to fourth grade.
When the current third graders took the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program test as second graders in spring 2021, 19% tested below grade level for ELA and only 43% were proficient. The reading portion of the ELA assessment will be part of the criteria used to determine third-grade holdbacks. Reading scores will be released on Oct. 14, separate from the ELA scores.
Officials said third graders will still have opportunities to be promoted even if they don't demonstrate reading proficiency on the ACAP next spring.
"There is a list of alternatives for third-grade students who fail the reading portion of the ELA," said state Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who sponsored the Literacy Act. "The students can take summer school where they will have to take another alternative test at the end."
Collins said the test is similar to the reading portion of the ACAP, but it will be given in a different format.
"For example, if a student took it online the first time, they will take it written the second time," Collins said.
Michael Sibley, director of communications for the state Department of Education, said that they were aware of struggling students even before the ACAP results were released recently.
“We identify these kids as early as kindergarten and prepare them before they even take the test in the second grade,” Sibley said.
Collins said that the cut score for third-grade holdbacks on the reading portion of the ACAP will be determined in November.
"We'll look at a student's cut score before we offer any alternatives," Collins said. "Those could include building a portfolio for the student to track their progress, certain exemptions, or summer school."
Sibley said interventionists have been working with students and practice tests have been given to assist them.
Decatur City Superintendent Michael Douglas said that third graders who don't test as proficient in reading will not be held back if they attend summer school and pass the assessment test.
“Even though we do summer reading camps, they would also be required to go to summer school,” Douglas said. “If they choose not to go to summer school, they’ll be retained.”
Students that fall in the category of English Language Learner (EL) or special education would be exempt from the holdback requirement and Alabama public schools will build a portfolio to submit to the state board to show their progress.
“So then, essentially, you’re left with the non-EL, non-special education, the kid that couldn’t get over the hump in summer school, those will be the kids that will be retained,” Douglas said.
The Legislature voted earlier this year to delay implementation of the third-grade holdback requirement to 2023-24 because of the pandemic's effect on education, but Gov. Kay Ivey vetoed the legislation in late May.
Douglas said that he does not believe the state will fully enact retention.
“I can’t imagine the state of Alabama failing 20 (percent) to 30 percent of its third graders,” Douglas said. “It seems like the governor and every lawmaker would lose their jobs.”
Lawrence County Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said his school system also is trying to prepare third graders.
“We’ve been speaking with elementary principals and we’re making sure our instructions are matching what is going to be on the test," he said.
Smith said that in addition to the state reading camps that will be held again this year, math camps will also be included in Lawrence County.
Lawrence County students tested 14.4% on the math portion of the ACAP, lower than the state average of 22.0 percent.
“We want parents to bring their kids to these camps and we want to address those needs,” Smith said.
Just like Douglas, Smith agrees that the pandemic has taken the biggest toll on education and was a huge factor in standardized testing in the spring.
“When you’re talking about a third-grade kid, the last normal year they’ve had of instruction was kindergarten,” Smith said. “We realize there will be some deficits and we’re just doing our very best to get those addressed.”