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Where Early-Literacy Policies Stand in States, and What to Expect in 2015

For the Dec. 10 print edition of Education Week, I've written a story previewing several policy issues that could make waves in 2015. One issue I didn't get to is early literacy. I chatted about the topic last week with Emily Workman, who follows state policy on K-3 reading for the Education Commission of the States. Here's some of what she had to say.

First, where do things stand now in terms of how many states have required reading assessments, interventions, and retention? Here are the numbers, according to Workman:

  • 35 states plus D.C. require a reading assessment in at least one grade, pre-k to 3rd grade, with the primary purpose of identifying reading deficiencies. The assessments are a mix of state-mandated and locally determined approaches. 
  • 31 states plus D.C. require or recommend that districts offer some type of intervention or remediation for struggling readers in [pre-K through 3rd grade]. Some states require specific interventions while others let districts choose from a list of suggested interventions. 
  • 14 states plus D.C. require the retention of third grade students who do not meet grade-level expectations in reading. in three additional states, students may be retained based on a recommendation from a teacher, superintendent, or parents.

One thing to watch out for next year, Workman told me, is how many states approve policies that hold teachers as well as schools more directly accountable for student literacy. She cited Utah as an example: In 2013, legislators approved a law stating that if a district or charter school failed to meet predetermined goals for 3rd grade reading test scores for two straight years, it would be deprived of funds from the state's K-3 Reading Improvement Program. 

Another possible model to beef up accountability for student literacy is Ohio's, she said. Under a state law also passed in 2013, Ohio districts given D or F ratings by the state on their K-3 literary progress measures for the two preceding years must come up with annual improvement plans by December 2016. 

Of course, many of the high-profile early-literacy policies already in place require many or all students who can't demonstrate literacy at the end of 3rd grade to be held back. However, Workman noted that in the last two years, only one state, Mississippi, has approved a policy that requires such students to be held back. (My colleague Liana Heitin reported earlier this year that Oklahoma lawmakers changed the state's retention policy and allowed thousands of 3rd graders to advance to the 4th grade despite failing the state reading test, and overrode a veto by GOP Gov. Mary Fallin in doing so.)

"I think that states are recognizing the importance of really looking at it as a continuum that starts with assessing students early on and then working to intervene, therefore hopefully avoiding retention in the first place," Workman told me. 

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