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Literacy Act delay bill advances

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A bill that would delay by three years the holdback requirement in the Alabama Literacy Act received unanimous support in the Senate Education Policy Committee Wednesday.

The act, approved by lawmakers in 2019, aims to increase reading skills in young students. The act currently requires that, starting at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, third grade students demonstrate specific sufficient reading skills before being promoted to fourth grade. Smitherman’s bill delays that retention requirement until the 2024-2025 school year.

He said the delay is needed because the COVID-19 pandemic led to remote learning for many students and they’re not getting the educational support they need. He also said teachers haven’t been able to get the training they need.

“We’re getting ready to flunk a whole generation of kids,” Smitherman, D-Birmingham said.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, was the House sponsor of the Literacy Act. She told Alabama Daily News Smitherman hadn’t discussed his bill with her and she hadn’t seen it. If it passes the Senate, Collins said she would oppose it in the House.

“There is no accountability for the Literacy Act in 2021, there is only continued implementation, which I want to continue to encourage us to move forward on,” Collins told ADN. “Now, next year we may need to talk about that and I’m very willing to talk about it then, but until we get real data from the (Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program assessment and other markers) ... we can't make a qualified decision."

On Wednesday, the House approved a House Joint Resolution from Collins to “commend and applaud all public school educators in the state for bravely continuing to instruct their students during the current pandemic.”

The resolution also encourages the Alabama State Department of Education and all local systems to encourage in-person taking this month of the new Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program assessment for students in grades two through eight. Last year was to be the first for the new test, but it was delayed because of the pandemic.

Collins said the test should be a baseline, but its results shouldn’t negatively impact schools. The resolution encourages the Alabama State Department of Education to waive all accountability indicators for 2021, including the “Legislative School Performance Recognition Program, the school grading system, the designation of schools as failing schools and the levy of any penalties against school systems, schools, educators, or students…”

The resolution doesn’t impact the Literacy Act, though, because students wouldn’t be retained until spring 2022, more than a year away, Collins said.

“We can’t make an educated decision about what we need to do until we see where we are,” Collins said. She said some of that data will be available by the end of the current school year.

Committee members voting in favor of the Smitherman's bill included Sens. Jim McClendon, R-Springville; Tom Butler, R-Huntsville; Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville and chair Tim Melson, R-Florence, who said he expects more debate and work on the bill.

“It’s a fine balance between pushing through (students) who aren’t ready and those who need a second chance,” Melson said.

Meanwhile, Collins said the increased focus on literacy, as required by the act, is needed.

Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposed 2022 education budget would give reading programs a $20 million increase to help schools meet new, higher reading standards in the act. That would bring the total reading education funding to $98 million, approaching the highest ever state investment in literacy.

The Alabama Association of School Boards said it supports reassessing the Literacy Act after students have taken some assessments that give a sense of where they are and the degree of learning loss.

"The retention portion is something we agree will need to be reexamined," the association said in an emailed statement. "A one-year delay is something we think certainly should be on the table, but we believe any longer term decisions should be made based on data."

In a written statement, the Alabama Education Association said it is in full support of the Literacy Act, but thinks the retention requirement should be postponed.

"Trying to implement the original third-grade retention requirement using the same pre-pandemic implemented deadline is causing unnecessary stress for Alabama educators," the AEA statement said. "Educators need more time to complete the full training required under the Literacy Act, and students need more time to make up for learning loss due to the pandemic."

Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, said Wednesday his organization is in favor of a minimum one-year delay in the retention portion of the act because of COVID-19.

"These issues have been present for this entire school year and part of last year," Hollingsworth said. "We are hopeful that next year will be much closer to a normal year."

Earlier this year, State Superintendent Eric Mackey said public schools saw a decrease in enrollment of about 9,700 students this year, according to the official count taken early in the school year.

Many of those students are in the lower elementary grades and have or were expected to return to school. Officials are especially concerned about children who seem to be skipping kindergarten this year because of the pandemic and may show up next year.

The House last month approved a bill to require kindergarten attendance or passage of an assessment test prior to entering first grade.