A new report shows reading scores for Louisiana’s youngest students have plunged for three consecutive years, raising red flags over arguably the state’s top challenge for improving achievement in the classroom.
The issue is getting new attention after state leaders learned last week that reading levels for students in kindergarten, first, second and third grades have all steadily dropped.
More than half of students in all four grades are performing below grade level, a potential harbinger of major learning problems.
"Clearly what we are doing is not getting the results that our kids deserve," state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"I am alarmed by this," Brumley added.
Reading problems have been an issue for years, and they are one of the reasons why the state ranks near the bottom nationally in education achievement.
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Previous BESE boards have grappled with the same challenge. In 2007, board members complained that they had little to show in reading gains despite the state spending $100 million since the mid 1990s.
But the latest results are especially bleak.
A total of 59.6% of kindergarten students were reading below grade level in 2020, up from 49.8% in 2018, according to the state Department of Education.
The report shows 57.7% of first graders are below grade level in reading, compared to 39.4% in 2018.
Among second-graders, 51.6% fell below the standard, compared to 41.3% two years earlier. For third graders, 50.5% were subpar compared to 40.9% in 2018.
For all grades, 55% were reading below grade level in 2020 compared to 42.8% in 2018.
"I don't want this report to go away and not recognize that we have a challenge in front of us," Brumley said. "We need a reading revival in this state."
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Experts say that, if a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, he or she is at risk of having school problems for years.
"I think K-3 is the gatekeeper for everything else that is going to happen," said former BESE President Linda Johnson, who served on the board for 13 years.
Johnson was part of that discussion 14 years ago when she and others sounded alarms like the one Brumley raised last week.
Johnson said the state suffers from a lack of adequate pre-school programs, which means too many students enter kindergarten not ready to learn.
She said the state has also implemented too many programs for reading improvements with too many stops and starts.
Johnson also said the state needs a better partnership with parents to ensure children are getting the stimulation they need at an early age.
Leslie Jacobs, another former BESE member who was part of that 2007 discussion, said what most teachers learned in their college of education is not working when it comes to teaching children how to read.
Louisiana has shown math gains on national scores after changes in curriculum and instruction.
"Other states, like Florida, have shown that you can have significant improvement in reading and we need to have the same focus on improving the curriculum and instruction in reading that we have in math," Jacobs said.
State law requires that students in kindergarten, first, second and third grades undergo literacy screening within 30 days of the start of the school year.
Children in kindergarten are tested on whether they recognize word sounds. First-graders are studied for basic phonics, second graders for oral reading fluency and third graders for reading comprehension.
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Libbie Sonnier, a member of Louisiana's Early Literacy Commission, echoed Johnson's concerns about kindergarten.
Sonnier said in some parishes more than 90% of children who enter kindergarten are ill-prepared to learn. About half are unprepared statewide.
"It speaks to the need for continued investment in early literacy and how we really need to focus on instruction in those kindergarten, first, second and third grades and really spend the time and effort to make sure children are getting the instruction they need that science supports," she said.
The commission has twice said Louisiana needs to spend $15 million per year for early literacy.
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The Legislature last year approved $2 million, which is being used to fund pilot projects in 12 urban and rural school districts.
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Some of the blame for the latest downturn in reading scores is the classroom upheaval triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ten months after the pandemic forced the first wave of classroom closings, 40% of students are relying on virtual learning or a combination of virtual and in-person instruction.
Last year, 59.1% of kindergarten students tested in-person scored below grade level in reading versus 65.4% of those quizzed virtually.
Among first-graders, 57.2% of those tested in-person were subpar compared to 63.8% of virtual learners. Second- and third-graders showed slightly higher scores virtually compared to in-person.
However, about half of students in both grades were performing below expectations.