Read or Repeat: Concerns about Alabama’s new literacy law

For the first time, Mississippi 4th graders scored higher than the nation’s average in math and...
For the first time, Mississippi 4th graders scored higher than the nation’s average in math and tied the average in reading among public schools.(Photo source: WLOX)
Updated: Nov. 13, 2019 at 2:14 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Alabama students have a major problem: most of our third graders can’t read at a proficient level for their grade. So the state passed a new law to try and fix this problem by forcing third-graders who can’t pass a reading test to turn around and do the grade all over again.

But critics and some educators worry this new law could create a whole new set of problems.

The latest round of testing shows 52 percent of Alabama’s third graders don’t read at a proficient level for their grade.

Mississippi saw similar numbers, so six years ago they passed a law putting up a “third grade gate,” forcing schools to hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level. This year Mississippi passed Alabama at the bottom of the reading rankings.

“Long told story was Mississippi has always been last and we’re not,"said Dr. Carey Wright, Mississippi’s State Supt. of Education. "It’s a great way to be looking at life for children because realizing that their educational attainment is only going up.”

“We can learn from them what did they do differently, what do they wish they had done,” said Vic Wilson, the Executive Director of the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools, or CLAS. “We can learn from their pitfalls, don’t make the same missteps, and what they learned we can replicate over here.”

That’s the idea of Alabama’s new law, but it only gives the state two years to ramp up teacher training before this year’s first graders are the first class to face this potential mandatory repeat. Imagine if the more than half of third-graders not reading proficiently now is somehow cut even by 20 percent, that still leaves a 1/3 of third graders open to the possibility of being forced to repeat the grade.

“If 30 percent of your kids are retained, just putting that number out there, what does it do to your staffing?” Wilson asked hypothetically. “Completely skews your staffing. You can’t have a situation where you have a bubble in third grade so you’ve gotta work to mitigate those numbers.”

The new law requires school systems to provide extra help for struggling readers beginning in kindergarten, something parents of dyslexic students are happy to see.

But the law doesn’t provide any extra money for this extra help like summer reading camps, and some educators point out that while research shows reading at third grade gives you a high chance of success later on, other research also shows problems for students who repeat a grade.

“You have the juxtaposition of the benchmark being third grade, but the data are just as clear that when you look at what retention does moving forward,” Wilson warned. "Students who are retained have a propensity to have problems moving forward later on. "

So what can you do as an elementary school parent? Get involved with your child now.

“I think our educators will begin to engage parents more, but parents need to be doing the same thing,” Wilson said. “What do I need to be doing at home, what are things we can do to help our child be better readers as well.”

That includes reading at home together, talking with your child about their favorite books and seeking extra help early on if you see problems even as early as kindergarten.

Here are more tips on promoting literacy at home from the National Literacy Council.

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