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Louisiana education leaders look to improve child literacy

by Will Phillips

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s education leaders are working on plans aimed at improving reading skills for the state’s youngest students, hoping to reverse years of neglect that has stifled education achievement for decades.

The Advocate reports that students from kindergarten through second grade have long been absent from Louisiana’s accountability system. The state’s focus on improving public schools has long centered on third graders and older.

“We have to give K-2 more attention,” state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said in an interview.

Thousands of the state’s youngest students are unable to read on grade level, which has devastating consequences as they move from grade to grade.

“This is the foundation of education,” said Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state’s two teacher unions. “At that level students are learning to read so they can ultimately read to learn.”

A state report earlier this year said only 43% of kindergarten students were reading on grade level, 54% of first graders, 56% of second graders and 53% of third graders.

The data is even more alarming when noting racial disparities. While 52% of white kindergarten students are reading at or above grade level, only 36% of black students do so, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education.

Nearly 161,000 public school students are enrolled in the three grades under scrutiny.

Tackling the issue of literacy among K-2 students was the highlight in a series of proposed sweeping changes that Brumley outlined to two groups last week that advise the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Both groups endorsed the push to address the issue.

Brigitte Nieland, director of government affairs for the advocacy group Stand for Children, called the exclusion of K-2 students from the state’s accountability program “a major gap in the accountability system at completely the wrong place, which is where the emphasis needs to be as far as literacy.”

The difficulties of testing such young children is one reason they have long been missing from yearly snapshots on performance — but day care centers are now subjected to state-issued quality ratings, offering expectations that such assessments are doable.

Under current rules, students are supposed to be tested within the first 30 days of each school year, including specific assessments for students in kindergarten and first through third grades. Brumley is suggesting possible changes in how students are screened for reading abilities, at the start and finish of the school year, and pinpointing student progress over the school year.

John E. Wyble, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Development and Learning, said the latest effort dovetails with plans for $2 million in new state aid to improve reading skills.

The money will fund pilot projects in up to 12 school districts, with up to 1,500 teachers receiving professional development from a dozen literacy coaches. Wyble said his group is also working to improve parental help for students at home and expanded training for current classroom teachers in the science of reading.

“We applaud Dr. Brumley and his team for being intentional in addressing this resource gap and are working with them to identify specific areas of greatest need,” he said in an email.

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