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What To Know About Alabama’s New Literacy Act

By Trisha Powell Crain | tcrain@al.com

The Alabama Literacy Act, first passed in 2019, will go fully into effect at the start of the new school year. We’ve been getting questions about the act and what it means for parents and students, especially third-graders who might be at risk of being held back if they aren’t reading well.

The Alabama Education Lab, a team of journalists at AL.com, talked to reading experts and assembled information from the state officials and local schools and districts to help explain the law.

Teachers are required to test the reading level of children in kindergarten, first, second and third grade at the beginning, middle and end of each school year, according to the law. That gives teachers plenty of opportunity to know which children are struggling, said Denise Gibbs, who leads the Alabama Scottish Rite Foundation Learning Centers, which helps children with dyslexia and other reading problems.

Teachers are required to give struggling readers extra support and parents will be brought on board and shown ways to help, too.

“Children’s reading struggles are going to be addressed from the first day they walk in the school,” Gibbs said.

She has championed stronger supports for children while they’re young to make sure they’re reading well by the time they leave the third grade. She said the literacy act includes everything teachers, students and parents need to make children great readers.

How will I know if my child is struggling to read on grade level?

Every child in kindergarten, first, second and third grade will be tested in reading at the beginning, middle and end of each school year.

Most schools should already be doing this; during the coming school year, the only change should be using a state-approved test instead of their own to assess reading levels.

If those test results show your child needs help, the teacher has 15 days to notify you, in writing. The notice should also include the plan — called an individual reading plan — the school will use to get your child on track.

Parents should receive monthly updates, in writing, on the child’s progress.

“If they’re not having the desired outcomes, then the team comes back together and comes up with Plan B or adds a little bit of this or tweaks a little bit of that,” Gibbs said.

If you have a third grader who is struggling to read, you will receive a notice that their child may have to repeat the third grade if they don’t reach grade level by the end of the summer after their third-grade year.

But remember that your child still has the full third grade school year and the following summer if needed. And teachers should be working intensely with your child to help him reach grade level.

Why is the retention provision set for third grade? What’s so special about third grade?

Experts say third grade is a critical year for reading, where children cross the line from learning to read — sounding out words, figuring out sentence structure — to reading to learn. By fourth grade, children should be using those foundational pieces learned in the previous grades to gain knowledge of other subjects.

If a child isn’t reading on grade level by the end of the third grade they’ll struggle to learn subject-level content from the fourth grade forward, likely falling further behind year after year.

“Students are exposed to a lot of narrative texts before third grade that follow a pattern: a story where there are characters, there’s conflict, there’s rising action, there’s a resolution, there’s maybe a moral to the story,” said Kymyona Burk, who led Mississippi’s efforts to improve reading in the early grades and now helps other states implement laws like Alabama’s Literacy Act.

As children move into the fourth grade, she said, they read more informational texts.

“Text complexity and text structure are different,” Burk said. “They have to bring the skills they’ve learned in decoding and word recognition in order to understand the text.”

Teachers in fourth grade and beyond expect children to be able to read subject-level content and aren’t necessarily trained themselves in interventions.

“When they encounter struggling readers,” she said, “they don’t necessarily know how to teach students to read.”

Gibbs said that if a child struggles to read in fourth grade and beyond, success in other classes will suffer.

“They’ll struggle in things they’re normally good in and that they like: science social studies, history, all of it,” she said. “If you let them go forward without those skills, continual struggle and failure will kill their self-esteem.”

But when a child’s struggle to read is identified early, as is required now by law, and the child gets the support they need early, the child never knows they ever struggled.

Does my third-grader’s promotion to fourth grade depend on whether he passes the annual statewide spring test?

In short, no.

Passing the reading portion of the third-grade annual test, called the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program or ACAP, is the quickest way to meet the requirement. But there will be additional chances to take and pass the test if your child doesn’t get the score they need on the test, there are other ways to meet the requirement and be promoted to the fourth grade.

  • A child could qualify for a good cause exemption in the following cases:
  • A child is in the first two years of learning the English language,
  • A child has a disability and is learning alternate standards,
  • A child has a disability, was retained once in kindergarten, first, second or third grade and has received two years of intensive remediation,
  • A child has received intensive intervention in reading for two or more years and has already been retained for a total of two years.

It’s important for parents to know these exemptions exist, Burk said, so they can ask questions as soon as their child is identified as a struggling reader.

Burk said that if your child meets that last exemption, being held back for two years already in their kindergarten through third grade years, parents should ask whether special education services are needed to get your child the help he needs.

A child can also be promoted, even if they don’t pass the reading test or qualify for a good cause exemption, if they demonstrate grade level reading on an alternate test or through a reading portfolio. The details about what needs to be in a portfolio are still under development according to state education officials.

Given the tough year kids have had because of the pandemic, why are officials still planning to hold kids back next year?

State education officials said they want to see this spring’s statewide test results before making any decisions about whether to delay the holdback provision in the act.

Those test results will be made public in September, according to State Superintendent Eric Mackey. And Gov. Kay Ivey said lawmakers could still delay the holdback provision during next year’s legislative session, which starts in January.

But for now, teachers should continue moving forward with everything required under the law as if the holdback provision will be in place at the end of next school year.

What happens if my child is held back in the third grade? How will another year in third grade help her?

If your child is held back in the third grade, she will get more intensive reading help, including being taught by a “highly effective” teacher and frequent monitoring. You will be asked to help, too, and will be given resources to help your child at home.