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Just under half of Louisiana’s third graders ended last school year reading below or significantly below grade level, according to a report released Tuesday by the state Department of Education.

The data, collected through a new thrice-yearly statewide literacy assessment for children in grades K-3, could be cause for concern for Louisiana, where starting this school year, third grade students who score below a certain threshold on their spring exam risk being held back.

Although the report shows that the number of kindergarteners and first graders reading at or above grade level steadily improved by an average of about 20% over the course of the year, third graders made only slight progress, and second graders lost some, gaining and losing about one percentage point, respectively.

In total, about 51% of second graders and 47% of third graders failed to meet crucial literacy benchmarks by the end of the school year.

“Even with these improvements, we recognize that we still have a long way to go,” state Education Superintendent Cade Brumley said.

Under the law, which passed last year, schools will have 30 days from testing to develop a reading improvement plan for children who score “well below” grade level — the lowest possible score range — on one of three yearly screening exams.

071024 State Reading Test Results

Any student who scores “well below” on their end-of-year exam will be given two additional opportunities to achieve a higher score before the start of the next school year. Children who are still unable to improve will not be allowed to enter fourth grade.

State data provided Tuesday showed that 30% of third graders scored “well below” on their spring exam.

The testing model duplicates a Mississippi law that proponents say helped spark extraordinary reading gains for children in that state, which went from 49th to 21st in fourth grade reading scores nationwide since adopting the changes in 2013.

State officials said K-1 students performed better on last year’s assessments than third graders because they saw fewer COVID-related learning disruptions and have benefited the most from recent shifts in state policy, such as required literacy training for K-3 teachers.

Jenna Chiasson, the state education department’s deputy superintendent of teaching and learning, pointed to younger learners’ higher reading scores as proof that Louisiana, which has struggled to improve childhood reading rates for decades, is doing something right.

“What we are doing right now, those fundamental shifts that have occurred in classrooms based on policy changes over the last few years, it’s working,” she said. “We have a lot of momentum as a state around the science of reading, and I think it’s really important that we stay the course, because our students will benefit.”

A longtime problem

The move to mirror Mississippi comes after years of effort to improve Louisiana’s literacy rates.

In 2021, after state tests showed that more than half of young students could not read at grade level, education officials created the Steve Carter Literacy Tutoring Program, which offered private tutoring to any struggling reader who wanted it.

Although roughly 160,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade qualified, less than 1% of those eligible had enrolled in the program by the start of this year.

Also in 2021, lawmakers introduced Act 108, which requires teachers and school administrators of students in grades K-3 to be trained in the science of reading, and the DREAM program, which provides age-appropriate books and other resources to elementary students reading below grade level.

Experts say an emphasis on literacy for students in all grades is crucial for improving life outcomes.

“Depending on how far behind a youngster is and how much access they have to other kinds of assistance, they can end up several years behind their peers,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor who specializes in childhood literacy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. “By the time they’re leaving high school, it can be a real problem.”

The state’s focus on literacy has begun to pay off in some ways, education leaders say.

A national report published by Harvard and Stanford researchers found that Louisiana has emerged as one of three states where reading test scores have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

Brumley also pointed to the kindergarten and first grade gains.

“It shows that our commitment to foundational reading is working across the state of Louisiana,” Brumley said. “It’s a testament to the dedication of Louisiana’s teachers, and their focus on ensuring children get the foundational skills they need in early grades to be successful.”

Email Elyse Carmosino at ecarmosino@theadvocate.com.