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Senate approves delay of Literacy Act holdback requirement

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MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Tuesday voted to delay by two years the holdback requirement in the Alabama Literacy Act, despite opposition from some chamber leaders.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, sponsored Senate Bill 94. It passed by a vote of 23-9.

The 2019 law currently requires that starting at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, third-grade students demonstrate sufficient reading skills before being promoted to fourth grade. Smitherman and others argued that COVID-19-caused learning loss would lead to more students being held back next year if lawmakers didn’t act.

Smitherman said he had met with superintendents from both Jefferson County and Birmingham City Schools who encouraged him to delay implementation of the Literacy Act.

“My only concern is the kids,” Smitherman said on the Senate floor. “We aren’t giving them a fair shot. So many of them have basically had a year away from the classroom, and we’re going to come in and ask them to take a test that if they fail they’ll get held back? How is that fair?”

As originally written, Smitherman’s bill would have delayed the implementation by three years. An amendment by Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, changed that to two years, starting in the 2023-2024 school year.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, who originally carried the Literacy Act in the Senate, spoke against Smitherman’s bill. He argued that the literary assessments won’t be given for another year, allowing for summer school, plus a regular fall and spring to catch students up.

“If I’m the current second-grader who next year is a third grader and I’m not proficient in reading, under this bill, are you just going to pass me on through even though I’m not ready? Frankly, that’s what we’ve been doing for years and it’s why we passed the literacy act to begin with,” Orr said.

Education in Alabama is set to receive more than $4 billion from Congress’ various COVID-19 relief bills, some going directly to schools and some allocated by the state. Legislative leaders have said they want to prioritize summer school and after-school learning to make up for learning loss experienced during the pandemic.

The Alabama Education Association, Superintendents Association and school board groups last month told Alabama Daily News they favored an at least one-year delay in the holdback rule.

Smitherman’s bill now goes to the House where Literacy Act sponsor Terri Collins, R-Decatur, has also said she was against the change. She previously said no action should be taken by lawmakers until they see how data from students’ yet-to-be given statewide assessments show the extent of any learning loss caused by COVID-19.