BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — More than half of Alabama elementary school teachers are now trained in the science of reading, and the state is seeing major increases in summer learning participation, according to a recent report by the Alabama Reading Initiative.
“We have to raise our expectations, and we have to help our teachers by coaching them up,” Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey told legislators at a budget proposal Tuesday, as lawmakers kicked off the 2022 legislative session.
The improvements come as Alabama schools adapt to requirements of the Alabama Literacy Act, which was passed in 2019 to improve the state’s reading scores, which trail much of the nation and have led to wider learning gaps throughout the pandemic.
And as schools continue to close their doors amid record-breaking case counts, state leaders say literacy is a top priority.
“Nobody is going to agree with you more than I that literacy is the most critical issue, particularly early-grade literacy,” Finance Director Bill Poole said in response to a legislator’s question Tuesday, as lawmakers discussed how the state will spend a massive influx of federal COVID relief funding.
The ARI’s report, published in December, lists several 2022 priorities, including expanding regional literacy specialists, providing tutoring, expanding training for educators and school leaders, and continuing summer learning opportunities.
Those supports are aligned with the Literacy Act, which requires districts to offer several literacy interventions for struggling readers, as well as training in the science of reading, which encourages teachers to drill down on foundational skills like phonics. It also included a controversial third-grade retention requirement originally slated to take effect this school year.
This fall, officials said they are considering delaying the retention and promotion portion of the Literacy Act, which, starting this May, requires schools to hold back third-graders who are not reading on grade level. Without a delay, about 23% of Alabama third graders would be at risk for retention, according to state officials. Mackey said Tuesday that the state’s goal is to cut that number in half.
About 5% of Alabama K-3 students were held back for reading in each of the past two years, according to ARI reports from 2020 and 2021. According to federal data, national K-12 retention rates have been on the decline, from 3% in 2000 to about 2% in 2016.
Additionally, one-third of Alabama kindergartners and nearly 40% of first through third graders were identified with a reading deficiency, and about 8% of all K-3 students demonstrated characteristics of dyslexia in 2021.
The state is also zeroing in early literacy assessments this year. About two in three entering kindergartners are actually ready for school in 2021, according to the report.
About 45% fail to meet math benchmarks, according to an AlaKiDS assessment tool, and about 18% fail to meet literacy, physical and social emotional benchmarks, according to the report.
The report doesn’t list specific academic outcomes, but it did show improvements in training and tutoring participation in 2020-2021.
Alabama school districts were required to offer summer literacy camps in 2021 to combat pandemic learning loss.
About a third of Alabama K-3rd graders were eligible for the summer camps last year, which provided more than 70 hours of literacy instruction for struggling readers. Just over half of the eligible students – around 33,000 – participated. That’s a large increase from 2020, when just 16% of eligible students participated in the camps, which were largely virtual.
This year, the state plans to allot just over $18 million to local districts to put on summer learning camps. Those will be funded with federal dollars throughout the next two summers, according to the report.
The Alabama State Department of Education adopted LETRS training as part of the Alabama Literacy Act, which in addition to providing foundational literacy support, also provides intensive support for the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools.
The state piloted the two-year course with a small cohort in 2018, with 109 program completers. Just over 3,500 teachers and administrators have completed LETRS training since then, with around 15,000 enrolled in total.
And the state is on track to boost the number of coaching sessions for reading specialists and K-3 teachers. Halfway into the school year, it has offered more than 100 sessions to about 1,500 participants; last year, about 2,500 educators signed up.
The state also plans to increase supports and trainings for children with dyslexia. Alabama currently has 90 Certified Academic Language Therapists – about half work in individual schools – after implementing a $5,000 incentive last year. CALTs are experts in helping children with dyslexia and diagnosing struggling readers and writers.
Among K-3 teachers, 41% have completed dyslexia awareness training and 48% have completed multisensory strategies training, which the ARI says it will boost this upcoming fiscal year. In 2020, more than 1,500 K-3 teachers satisfied the definition of a dyslexia interventionist. In 2021, that number dropped to 344.