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A classroom inside a New Orleans public high school.

Amid alarming reading problems for the state's youngest students, Louisiana ranks sixth in the nation in adopting scientific methods for instructing prospective teachers how to teach reading, a national report released Monday says. 

Nine traditional undergraduate and graduate programs earned an A grade. Programs at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux and the University of New Orleans were singled out.

LSU was given a B for its undergraduate reading program. Southern University got a D and Southeastern Louisiana University an A.

The review was done by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that promotes what it calls a modernized teaching workforce.

The results were issued at a time when reading problems — a longtime education challenge in Louisiana — are getting renewed attention.

A state report earlier this month said only 43% of kindergarten students scored at or above the needed benchmark, compared with 54% of first graders, 56% of second graders and 53% of third graders.

The panel, called the Early Literacy Commission, said the state needs to boost spending by $15 million per year to help ensure students are proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.

The issue is a national problem too.

Each year, more than 1 million students reach the fourth grade with reading problems, according to the council.

The group said 43 million citizens are "essentially illiterate" and unable even to read their own mail.

The study said tackling the problem "begins with making sure that teachers can understand and employ research-based instructional methods."

The report said 13 of 15 state programs reviewed received an A or B and that nine landed top marks, including undergraduate reading classes at Nicholls and graduate programs at UNO.

Hannah Dietsch, assistant state superintendent for talent, said Louisiana is a national leader in teacher preparation and that the latest survey stems from hard work by college and university officials.

"Our teacher preparation competencies — what prospective teachers need to learn in order to earn a credential — are well-aligned to the principles of scientifically based reading instruction," Dietsch said.

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette landed A's for both its undergraduate and graduate training classes.

The report said Nicholls, which got an A+, is one of 15 programs nationwide labeled "exemplary" and met all the criteria in the five areas promoted by the council.

The school produces about 75 teacher candidates per year, said Alyson Theriot, head of teacher education at Nicholls and an associate professor of reading.

"We're thrilled and we are going to continue to do what we do," Theriot said.

UNO is one of six graduate reading programs in the U.S. that earned A's all four years that the ratings were issued.

Officials of the group said they spent a decade hammering out five components for what they say constitutes top-flight reading instruction programs. That list includes developing student awareness of the sound made by spoken words, mapping speech sounds onto letters and letter combinations, giving students practice in reading words, building vocabulary and comprehension.

Officials review required reading courses for elementary programs, lecture topics, assigned reading for prospective teachers, assessments and opportunities for practice.

The council said 51% of programs reviewed nationally earned an A or B in meeting the five benchmarks, up from 35% in 2013.

"The resistance to teaching what is scientifically based has been so formidable," Kate Walsh, president of the council, said in a statement. "The scale is now tipping in favor of science, and the real winners here are the students who will learn to read." 

However, reading programs offered through alternative certification both nationally and in Louisiana got low marks. Alternative certification allows teacher candidates who already have an undergraduate degree to earn a certificate in 12-18 months through a fast-track program offered by universities or independent groups.

The speed of the training means those programs are largely unable to prepare teachers to teach reading, according to the report.

The Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, one such program cited, was given an F for its reading preparation methods, and teachNOLA got a D.

The lone bright spot among such programs was the Northwestern State University Practitioner Teacher Program in Natchitoches, which got a B.

In an email, the executive director of the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators, Kyle Finke, said his group's focus on learning by scientific design and modeling helped result in alumna Kim Eckert, who teaches at Brusly High School, being named 2018 state Teacher of the Year and alumna Stephanie Whetstone winning a 2018-19 Milken teaching award.

The national rankings represent  a reversal of traditional lists on student achievement.

Higher-income states that usually rank high, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, finished near the bottom this time. Despite some challenges, including achievement gaps by race and income, improving early reading is often not a pressing issue in those states.

The top-ranked states this time are Mississippi, Utah, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Idaho and Louisiana.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.