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Governor rejects delaying full implementation of the Alabama Literacy Act

Children who do not read at third-grade level will have to repeat the grade beginning after the 2021–22 school year.


Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday vetoed Senate Bill 94, which would have delayed the promotion policy component of the Alabama Literacy Act for two years.

SB94 was sponsored by state Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham.

On the closing day of the 2021 Legislative Session, the Alabama House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 94 to delay the promotion policy component of the Alabama Literacy Act for two years. More specifically, the Alabama Literacy Act mandates that any third grader who does not read at a third-grade level on the end-of-year standardized testing would repeat third grade rather than go on to fourth grade with his or her peers.

This was to take place at the end of the upcoming 2021–22 school year. SB94 delayed implementing the failing children based on their standardized testing performance for two years over concerns that many children have fallen behind not through their own lack of effort or ability or the poor performance of their teachers, but due to the unprecedented school interruptions over the last 14 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am here standing up for those little people, who have no one down here representing them,” Smitherman said. “I am not opposed to the Alabama Literacy Act, but failing those little children who have had no schooling for most of the last year is just wrong.”

Ivey rejected the Legislature’s call for delaying implementation of the Alabama Literacy Act.

“As a former teacher and even more so as governor, I believe early literacy is the gateway to all learning. In the past several days, I have heard from Alabamians who support and from those who oppose the legislature’s approval of a two-year delay of the third-grade promotion policy included in the Alabama Literacy Act,” Ivey said. “Without the delay, the promotion policy is set to take effect at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, or one year from now.”

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“Everyone agrees that the past 15 months of the Covid-19 pandemic have been hard on all Alabamians, including school personnel, students and parents,” Ivey said. “However, to establish any delay at all in the Alabama Literacy Act prior to analyzing the 2020-2021 summative assessment data for reading would be hasty and premature. Therefore, I have notified the sponsors of the promotion policy delay that I have vetoed SB 94.”

Ivey held out the possibility that implementation of the promotion policy component might still occur.

“Furthermore, as president of the Alabama State Board of Education, I am requesting that the state superintendent of education and his staff provide the board, and the public, a full and complete review of the Spring 2021 Assessment results in all subjects and grades, but in particular the data on reading in the early grades as soon as the data are available and have been analyzed,” Ivey said. “Once that is completed, I will ask the Alabama Committee on Grade Level Reading to review the relevant data and make recommendations regarding any necessary action. All the aforementioned work can take place this year, well ahead of any deadlines identified in the Alabama Literacy Act.”

“As we address the impact of the pandemic on our students, we need the support and focus the Alabama Literacy Act provides: identifying and supporting struggling readers, teacher training and coaching, and clear communication with parents on where their children have needs and how those needs are being addressed,” the governor said. “We must remain focused on ensuring that our students have the foundational reading skills they need to succeed.”

Under the state Constitution, special rules apply to any bill presented to the governor within five days before the Legislature’s final adjournment: If the governor signs the bill and deposits it with the secretary of state within 10 days following final adjournment, the bill becomes law.

Otherwise, the bill does not become law. This latter scenario is commonly referred to as a “pocket veto.” Since SB94 was presented to the governor just before midnight on the last day of the Legislature’s 2021 session, Thursday’s decision by Ivey means that the Alabama Literacy Act’s promotion policy will remain set to take effect at the end of the 2021–22 school year.

Supporters of the Alabama Literacy Act argue that a child who does not read at grade level by the end of third grade cannot properly comprehend fourth-grade level work so holding them back a year gives them the opportunity to go back and learn what it is that they missed in the third grade so they don’t fall further behind in the fourth grade and beyond.

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Opponents of the Alabama Literacy Act point out that fourth grade and eighth grade standardized testing results are the two years used to calculate state education rankings, and in the last year for which we had those results, Alabama was 46th in reading and 50 in math – cumulatively dead last in education among all the states.

Opponents claim that the Alabama Literacy Act promotion policy component is actually just a cynical attempt by state policymakers to artificially inflate the state’s 2022–23 education results by holding back students from taking the fourth-grade test with their age-appropriate peers. Supporters argue that this plan has worked in Mississippi, which performs much higher in the education rankings than Alabama does, despite having similar demographics.

SB94 supporters argue that teachers cannot possibly make up for the lost hours, days, weeks and months of instruction from the pandemic and that if the state does not delay implementation of the promotion policy component of the Alabama Literacy Act that there will be a train wreck with thousands of children being denied advancement to fourth grade with their peers and any efforts to catch up those students in an extra year of third grade being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of students in that situation.

There was no standardized end of year testing given in the state at the end of the 2019–20 school year due to the COVID-19 shutdown of in-person learning on March 12, 2020, so there is no data on the current situation with education in Alabama.

There has been testing done this year, so in the coming weeks, we will have those numbers to see what, if any, impact the COVID-19 forced move to e-learning has been.

If those numbers indicate a significant erosion in children’s scholastic performance, then the Legislature could revisit this issue during the 2022 Legislative Session in January.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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