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After years of neglect, state education leaders are launching plans to improve reading skills for students in kindergarten, first and second grades in hopes of repairing a handicap that has stifled education achievement in Louisiana for decades.

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

Students from kindergarten through second grade have long been absent from Louisiana's accountability system.

"It is a major gap in the accountability system at completely the wrong place, which is where the emphasis needs to be as far as literacy," said Brigitte Nieland, director of government affairs for the advocacy group Stand for Children.

The state's focus on improving public schools has long focused on third graders and older.

"Louisiana has a long history of accountability aligned to the academic focus on grades 3-12 and has recently expanded accountability to publicly-funded early childhood programs," according to a document prepared by the state Department of Education. "However, Louisiana currently lacks measures to reflect the success of grades K to 2."

The difficulties of testing such young children is one of the reasons they have long been missing from yearly snapshots on performance. But day care centers are now subjected to state-issued quality ratings, which means assessing students from K-2 is doable.

The issue is also winning attention because thousands of K-2 students are simply 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," Mills said.

The shortcoming is a key reason Louisiana is ranked 47th for classroom achievement by Education Week magazine, 48th by U.S. News & World Report and between 44th and 49th in math and reading among fourth- and eighth-graders on the nation's report card.

A 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 news is even more alarming in how students are reading by race.

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.

Experts say how a child is reading by the end of the third grade is a key predictor of future academic success.

"Science shows and data shows that there is a direct correlation between a child's ability to read at grade level and their ultimate long-term achievement in life," said state Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans and one of the Legislature's top literacy advocates.

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

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Tackling the issue of literacy among K-2 students was the highlight in a series of potential sweeping changes that Brumley outlined to two groups last week.

One was the Accountability Commission, a panel of educators and others that advises the state Board of Elementary Education. The other was the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, which also advises BESE.

Both groups endorsed the push to address the issue.

"We need to have a lot of conversations with stakeholders and BESE members about something like this," Brumley said.

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, first, second and third grades.

Changes in how students are screened for reading abilities, at the start and finish of the school year, is one of the possibilities.

Pinpointing student progress over the school year so children are prepared for the third grade is another.

John E. Wyble, president and CEO of the non-profit 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 urban and rural school districts.

Up to 1,500 teachers will get coaching and 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.

Nearly 1 of 3 public schools serving students from kindergarten through eighth grades— 31%— carried a "C" rating by the state in 2019.

Stand for Children's Nieland said 60% of students in C-rated schools are typically reading below grade level. "That is horrible. That is unconscionable," she said.

Email Will Sentell at