A new law that has created a “read or flunk” scenario for students who enter third grade in two years may improve reading statewide, but the deadline to get students ready is too soon, Decatur-area superintendents said.

They also said there's no way to figure out how many students would have been retained based on current testing data because the state has not determined what score students must get to be considered at grade level and avoid repeating third grade.

“We’ve already started the clock running, and no one knows what reading at grade level is at this point,” said Decatur City Schools Superintendent Michael Douglas, who represents superintendents on a task force looking for ways to implement the law.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, was co-sponsor of the Alabama Literacy Act, which passed in the spring and requires third graders to read at grade level or be held back beginning with the 2021-22 school year.

She said she stands by the law because too many students are not proficient in reading and reading scores have increased in other states with similar laws.

Based on 2017-18 testing numbers, which are the latest available, only 46.3% or students statewide tested proficient in reading. In Decatur, 41.5% of grade 3-8 students reached reading proficiency. The State Department of Education's publicly available data is not broken down by grade. The reading proficiency percentage for Decatur elementary schools in 2017-2018 ranged from 12.85% to 74.92%, averaging about 40%. 

Douglas said reading proficiency and reading at grade level are different, and the state — as required by the literacy law — has not determined what grade level will be for third graders when they take the new Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program (ACAP) test in the spring of 2020.

“We shouldn’t have started the clock until our work was complete,” Douglas said, referring to the work of the task force that State Superintendent Eric Mackey appointed to figure out how to implement the law.

In the spring, students will pilot ACAP, which is the third test in three years to determine how the state’s grade 3-8 students are performing. Mackey said last week that the score third graders will have to attain to avoid being retained in 2022 will not be determined until the 2020 test results are finalized.

Morgan County Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said his district is in “a holding pattern” about how to proceed and this is not fair to the current first graders. He also has other concerns about the law because it requires school systems, beginning in kindergarten, to provide extra support for students not reading at grade level.

He said Morgan County may have students who need help now, but no one knows what scores they need to reach.

“This is not fair to the students,” Hopkins said.

Another concern for Hopkins is the requirement to provide reading intervention and summer camps because both come without state funding.

“We have to pay for instructors, transportation and figure out how we’ll get these kids to summer camps,” he said. “We’re not like a city system where we can have camps at one location.”

Hopkins said Morgan County is planning to have three summer camp locations. He didn’t have an estimated cost, but said the district would have to dip into its reserve funds.

Douglas said the state superintendent has asked the Legislature for additional money to fund the law’s requirements, but those funds will not be available for what schools are currently doing.

He said there’s also a training component for teachers, and Decatur is using local money for part of this. The state is paying for about 3,000 teachers statewide to receive year-long training, but there are more than 20,000 K-3 teachers in the state.

Although her district historically has some of the best standardized test scores in the state, Hartselle City Superintendent Dee Dee Jones is also concerned about the unfunded mandates.

“We looked at our current test scores and we don’t believe any third grade student here would have been retained,” she said, adding that the new law grants exceptions for English language learners, students with disabilities, and students who have already been held back once.

“We’ll have to find money for students who need help, especially after grade level is determined,” Jones said.

Mississippi is a state that lawmakers and proponents point to as demonstrating why Alabama’s law is needed and will work.

Unlike in Alabama, however, Mississippi lawmakers involved teachers and its education department before passing the state’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013. Mississippi has seen a 6% increase in reading scores for grade 3-8 students. Reading scores of third graders, which is the grade where students can be retained, have increased 12%.

Douglas said Mississippi teachers and school officials were involved with drafting the law, and passing grade levels were determined before the clock started ticking to prepare students.

He said he’s not necessarily against the literacy act, and expects it “to do more for the state in terms of reading,” but wishes more discussion was held with educators.

“We’re in the game, now we just have to figure out the passing rule,” Douglas said.

— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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