New brief compares state early literacy policies

At least 89 bills have been introduced throughout the country this legislative session that address reading instruction, third-grade intervention or literacy in general, according to the Education Commission of the States.

According to the commission’s updated 50-State Comparison on K-3 Policies brief, recent legislative activity shows more state leaders are setting curricular requirements for reading instruction and asking educator candidates and current educators to complete training in the science of reading.

As children develop literacy skills in their earliest years, the progress made should go from learning to read to reading to learn. Reading proficiency is required to build knowledge in all subject areas as they graduate through their educational career. Research has found that students who struggle with literacy skills as early as kindergarten often continue to read below grade level throughout the early grades, and many do not receive the assistance they need to catch up.

Even before the pandemic, California fourth graders scored below average in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, and California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress data shows half of third graders — including about two-thirds of both Black and Latino students — do not read at grade level.

Todd Collins, a Palo Alto Unified School District trustee and organizer of the literacy advocacy group California Reading Coalition told EdSource that “the problem is we’re still at the first stage of acknowledging there’s a problem.”

State literacy comparison updates

At least 17 states and the District of Columbia specify requirements for districts or schools around reading curricula. Some states specify only general criteria that schools or districts must meet while others stipulate that curricula must be chosen from a list or model approved by the state’s education agency or board. California has no specified reading curricula in statute or regulation.

At least 38 states plus the District of Columbia require additional assessments outside of federally required third-grade assessments. Examples of required assessments across grades K-3 include screeners, diagnostic assessments, formative assessments and summative assessments. In California, Education Code specifies that the Department of Education “shall identify and make available to school districts information regarding existing assessments in language arts and mathematics that are aligned to the common core academic content standards for pupils in grade 2.” However, local educational agencies are not required to use them.

While California does not specify in statute or regulation, at least 39 states and the District of Columbia require interventions for students reading below grade level in grades K-3. Identified interventions include extended instructional time, individualized reading programs and more. Some states allow LEAs to determine the types of interventions to be administered.

At least 26 states and the District of Columbia have policies that either allow for or require retention in the third grade for students who do not demonstrate reading proficiency on summative assessments. At least 16 states and the District of Columbia require retention in the third grade but provide exemptions for good cause. Good cause exemptions typically include students who are English learners with limited instruction in English programs, students with reading difficulties who have been previously retained, students who demonstrate reading proficiency through alternative assessments and evaluations and students with individualized education programs excusing them from participation in statewide assessments. In California, exemptions include allowing a written submission from the student’s classroom determining that grade retention is not an appropriate intervention. At least 10 states allow retention with policies being determined at the local level.

Finally, at least 24 states with grade retention policies, including California, also require parents to be engaged in the retention process. Parental engagement policies include notification of the possibility of retention to involvement in the retention and intervention process and the ability to appeal a retention decision.