Ignoring the bipartisan vote of the Alabama Legislature and the recommendations of numerous educators and superintendents, Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have delayed a portion of the Alabama Literacy Act that required third-graders who failed to read at grade level be retained.
The bill would have delayed the retention portion for one year, potentially avoiding thousands of Alabama third-graders being retained due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“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 in a prepared statement. “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’s veto was met with sharp criticism from Democrats and others who supported the delay. The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, gained bipartisan support and passed the Senate, 23-9, and the House, 68-27, with broad support. It also had the support of the Alabama Education Association and the School Superintendents of Alabama.
Democrats were particularly critical of the decision because of Alabama’s numerous failures to provide students with basic educational tools, such as reliable broadband internet service, during the pandemic. For thousands of students, virtual school meant no school. Other districts struggled to provide basic supplies and to establish virtual learning portals, resulting in students missing dozens of days of instruction.
“We are highly disappointed in the governor’s decision — it is a slap in the face to the 68 House members and 23 senators who supported this legislation,” said House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels. “The bill wasn’t controversial or divisive, it was about making sure Alabama’s school children were on a level playing field. It is simply not fair to hold back students due to circumstances that were well beyond their control, especially in rural communities.”
The retention portion of the Literacy Act has been heavily criticized by education experts as a scheme to artificially inflate Alabama’s consistently low national education rankings. Because one portion of the National Association of Education Progress (NAEP) scores — also known as America’s Report Card — is tallied based on fourth-grade reading scores, one way to up a state’s NAEP scores is by making sure its struggling readers never make it to fourth grade to take the test.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it unique to Alabama — 16 states and the District of Columbia have implemented some sort of reading test for third-graders and required retention for those who fail it. Mississippi did so in 2013 and saw its NAEP rankings for fourth-grade reading jump from 49th to 29th. Mississippi also delayed its retention program for a year in the wake of the pandemic.
Alabama’s retention requirement is set to begin at the end of the 2021-22 school year — a year that is expected to show massive setbacks for students due to the struggles of the pandemic. Education experts have predicted that thousands of third-graders could fail to meet the third-grade benchmarks and face retention, even as students in other grades — all of them dealing with learning loss from the last year — move on to other grades.
Such a mass retention could place a severe burden on educators and school districts and reshape both curriculum and staffing at many schools. Instead, lawmakers wanted a less invasive approach — one that still implemented the rest of the Literacy Act and assured that struggling children were receiving necessary instruction and assistance, but didn’t unfairly punish them for the lost year of in-person education.
“It’s not right for state officials to be making these choices when they haven’t provided the proper foundation for these children affected by the pandemic to move forward and be successful,” said Rep. Barbara Drummond, who sponsored the House version of the bill. “Why should Alabama’s school children be penalized for something they had no control over when states like Mississippi delayed their version of this law for a year?”
Ivey said she was instead instructing State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey to make available the Spring 2021 Assessment results when ready so they can be studied and a new plan formed.
“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,” Ivey said. “We must remain focused on ensuring that our students have the foundational reading skills they need to succeed.”
Supporters of the bill, though, point out that all of those aspects of the Literacy Act can be utilized without holding back a massive number of students.