Why You Should Support Delayed Implementation of the Alabama Literacy Act

COVID-19 has altered our lives in one way or another. Whether it be by the loss of a family member due to illness, loss of income due to business closures, increased stress due to angst and worry, or any other impeding factor, COVID-19 has changed the way in which we interact with the world around us. It has changed not only our personal lives, but our students’ academic lives, as well.

The pandemic has created a significant, lasting impact on our school children — starting from lack of instruction due to school closures all the way to the lingering effects of mask mandates, staff shortages, and much, much more. I’m sure we can all agree that there is no worse time that our state could choose to implement such a stringent act that will have devastating effects on our already-impacted elementary students as well as severe impacts to current school staffing and resources.

With that being said, I am not looking to argue COVID measures that were placed in our schools. However, I do want to highlight the fact that these measures have, in some way or another, impacted all of our school children. The articles I have included in this essay will show measurable evidence of this, and I would encourage all readers to peruse these articles at their leisure.

What is the Alabama Literacy Act?

The Alabama Literacy Act was passed in the summer of 2019 with the intention of ensuring children grades Kindergarten through 3rd grade could exhibit reading proficiency. According to the Alabama legislature, students should be proficient in reading by the end of third grade in order to comprehend materials presented in fourth grade and beyond.

In order to adhere to these standards, the Act requires third grade students who do not demonstrate the required reading skills will not be promoted to third grade (i.e. they are retained back in third grade). The Act identifies the ACAP Summative standardized test as the marker for determining whether or not a child can demonstrate the required reading skills.

To put it frankly, if a third grade student does not pass the ACAP Summative test, they will not move on to fourth grade. Their performance throughout the school year is of no worth for promotion, even if the student has met requirements for AB or A Honor Roll.

Although the Act was passed in 2019, it was not intended to go into effect until the 2021–2022 school year. This means first graders in 2019–2020 and all students thereafter will be affected by this mandate.

Why is retention such a big deal? What’s the problem?

As stated previously, COVID-19 has impacted all aspects of daily life, including academic behaviors and performance. Holding students to a standard imposed prior to the pandemic is irresponsible, as students all across the country have received less instructional time, navigated through major stressors, and have been required to cope with a change to the norm without proper guidance.

General Educational Losses and Disparities

Stanford University researchers have concluded through the Northwest Evaluation Association test scores for students in 17 states that it is estimated “the average student had lost one-third of a year to a full year’s worth of learning in reading, and about three-quarters of a year to more than one year in math since school closed in March 2020” [due to COVID-19]. (Kuhfield & Tarasawa, 2021). Kufield and Tarasawa argue that these projections indicate major academic impacts to students, both in reading and mathematics. Page three of this article illustrates a reading and mathematics forecast from school closure versus a typical last day. You can see just how much of an impact is projected in the figures below.

A graph showing the projected RIT score in comparison to the number of days attended.
A graph showing the projected RIT score in comparison to the number of days attended.

Hansen (2011) concludes through research across multiple states that additional instructional days result in increased student performance. This is truly a no-brainer. However, it is important to note that lack of instructional days is the opposite reactor that results in decreased student performance.

It is important to note that Kuhfield and Tarasawa did not include academic information from special needs students as identified via IEP and 504 plans, and that if such factors had been taken into consideration, this would have skewed the projection results to include a more significant decline.

Weather Related Events

While the pandemic has been a considerable factor in school closures, we cannot forget closures that resulted from weather-related events. Locally, our schools closed for several weeks during Hurricane Sally and Hurricane Ida. Many students experienced homelessness and additional stressors as a result of these events. Many of these students are still experience issues because of them.

When the citizens of Louisiana experienced devastating losses during Hurricane Ida, families in Baldwin County (Alabama) stepped up to help families looking for shelter. I am proud to say my local community provided relief for many during that time, but not without impacts to our own homes, businesses, and school. The addition of students evacuating after Hurricane Ida resulted in the need for an additional third grade classroom and teacher at our local elementary school. Can you imagine how many more teachers and/or building space would need to be added if the Literacy Act were to be implemented this year as intended? How would that ultimately affect the current and future education budgets within our state?

Student Mental Health and Academic Performance

My referenced article by Meherali and other contributors confirms long-term emotional and psychological damage to adolescent mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The results of this study were noted as overwhelming and “demonstrate that pandemics are precursors to mental health decline.” I would like to quote the most alarming portion of this article below:

Specifically, impairments in mental health leave children and adolescents with increased emotional stress, feelings of helplessness, and fear, which can evolve into mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. The consequences of the decline in mental health in young populations lead to engagement in unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse, absenteeism, and school interruptions.” (Meherali, Punjani, Louie-Poon, Rahom, Gas, Salam, and Lassi, 2021).

Meherali and contributors did not only include COVID-19 in the study data, but also other pandemics such as ecola and H1N!. Although, I believe it would be safe to argue COVID-19 has resulted in far larger worldwide impacts than other previous pandemics. Regardless, there is sufficient evidence to show the mental health of our children has resulted in significant impacts to all aspects of their lives, including education.

Special Needs Students and Considerations

Students with special needs have been more profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control on COVID-19 and special needs students indicates children with special needs encounter unique challenges during the pandemic and through lockdown measures that are not as impactful to non-special needs students. This includes interruptions to regular routines, lack of special instruction, lack of peer group interactions, and other factors that are known to lead to regression. Resources for special needs students have also been lacking during the pandemic despite efforts to make up the differences, such as interruptions to one-on-one assistance and other physical measures.

Although the term “special needs” can cover a wide variety of disorders, the current Literacy Act recommendations essentially lump all special needs students together, with the exception of students that qualify under AAA. LEAs are given little, if any, discretion to promote an IEP or 504 student that has shown improvement and met goals listed under their care plan. Promotion to the next grade level could be determined and granted by an LEA in other grade levels, but somehow our special needs students are punished if they are in third grade. For lack of a better phrase, “that doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

For example, how can we allow an IEP student an accommodation to have classroom tests read aloud if needed, but we cannot allow for such on the ACAP testing that will determine promotion? Why are we holding such strict requirements in one test alone while not focusing on ways to improve overall comprehension and problem-solving skills?

I know there are many parents of IEP and 504 students who mistakenly believe their child will be exempt from the retention requirements. I know that because I was one of them. I am thankful to the leadership staff and proactive teachers at my local level that have made (and continue to make) an effort to inform parents of changes coming from a state level that will significantly impact our students even more than they already have been. However, I cannot help but wonder how many IEP and 504 parents across the state will be blindsided at the end of the summer when they receive a letter that their child is being retained after believing they were exempt.

The Impact To Underprivileged Children

Children within a lower socioeconomic bracket have also been shown to experience more challenges than a typical student. For most students, the home represents a “safe space”. But for poor and underprivileged students, their home is often the place they dread going the most. Statistically, these children are more likely to become victims of abuse and violence, something that has only increased due to quarantine and lockdown measures. They may have also experienced malnutrition due to lack of financial resources or even neglect. These factors have shown to have a significant impact on academic progress and achievement (Hoofman & Secord, 2021).

Exemptions

The current wording of the guidance provided under the Act identifies good cause exemptions that are particularly important to IEP and 504 students who have previously been determined to exhibit a deficiency in reading and/or mathematics. These exemptions include:

(1) Students with disabilities whose IEP indicates that participation in the statewide assessment program is not appropriate, consistent with state law.

(2) Students identified as ESL learners who have had less than two years of instruction in English as a second language.

(3) Students with disabilities who participate in the statewide English language arts reading assessment and who have an IEP or 504 plan that reflects that the student has received intensive reading intervention for more than two years and who still demonstrates a deficiency in reading AND were previously retained in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, or third grade

The inclusion of the word AND rather than OR within the eligibility requirement will ultimately result in the retention of many IEP and 504 students whose current intervention plans allow for accommodations to assist in total comprehension. By not removing or changing this verbiage, you are setting these students up for failure, as their typical accommodations inside the general education or resource classrooms allow for measures that result in a fair distribution of equity.

Could HB220 save the day?

HB220 was introduced by Representative Terri Collins in 2021. This bill would allow for a delay of the implementation of the Literacy Act, as well as needed changes and clarification for good cause exemptions. Representative Collins’ bill hosts the following crucial changes:

(1) Delay of implementation by one year

(2) Clarification and re-wording of good cause exemption criteria from “and” to “or” (a substantial victory for IEP and 504 students)

(3) Additional interventions to be made available to incoming third grade students who would be subject to retention if implementation was delayed until the 2022–2023 school year

What can I do?

As parents, we are responsible for advocating for our children on every level. If you are in support of delayed implementation for the Literacy Act, I would highly encourage you to contact your state representatives, local administrators, and local school board to voice your concerns about implementation.

HB220 passed in the House and moved to the Senate where it was placed on the calendar. It is currently set to be amended to reduce paperwork next week where it will (hopefully) be passed and sent on to Governor Ivey’s desk for signature.

You can also help spread the word about this Act to your friends, family members, and colleagues. Simply share this article or reach out intimately for an open conversation with those who may be impacted by this legislation.

Conclusions

In her State of the State Address on January 11, 2022, Governor Kay Ivey acknowledged the shortfalls of the state’s public education system during the COVID-19 pandemic and suggested that more data is needed before the implementation of the Alabama Literacy Act. While I agree the Literacy Act can be beneficial to our students in the future, implementing the requirements now is simply irresponsible of us as parents, educators, and public leaders. Governor Ivey also noted that the only way to close some of the achievement gaps resulting from COVID-19 is through the creation and utilization of after school and summer programs. Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama State Superintendent, confirmed his support for this statement, as documented in the January 2022 minutes of the Alabama Board of Education.

As a business owner and professional, I often like to make the claim that I am a “Jill of all trades.” However, I’ve learned since the inception of the pandemic that I am no elementary education. I, as well as many other parents, rely on the expertise of our teachers and administrators to help guide our students to academic success. Together we work as a cohesive unit to encourage academic performance. Through conversations with staff on the local level, I know there are concerns about the implementation of the Act not only for my child, but for many others. I would implore you to become familiar with the devastating impacts that failing to delay the implementation of this Act would have on children all across the state, especially special needs students.

Decision-making can be easy when you are not affected by proposed changes, which is why it is vitally important to listen to parents and educators who are on the front lines and seeing the impacts of the pandemic on a daily basis.

Our kids have been through so much already. Let’s not let this be one more cause for trauma.

Sources

Hansen, B. School Year Length and Student Performance: Quasi Experimental Evidence. (2011). https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2269846

Hoofman, J., Secord, E. The Effect of COVID-19 on Education. (2021). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8445757/

Kuhfield, M.; Tarasawa, B. The Covid-19 Slide: What Summer Learning Loss Can Tell Us about the Potential Impact of School Closures on Student Academic Achievement. [Brief]. (2021). https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED609141

Meherali, S., Punjani, N., Louie-Poon, S., Rahim, K., Das, J., Salam, R., Lassie, Z. Mental Health of Children and Adolescents Amidst COVID-10 and Past Pandemics: A Rapid Systematic Review. (2021). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33810225/

HB220 http://alisondb.legislature.state.al.us/ALISON/SearchableInstruments/2022RS/PrintFiles/HB220-int.pdf

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