Half of Louisiana K-3 students are behind in reading skills. How did Lafayette score?

William Taylor Potter
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

The Louisiana Department of Education is adding an accountability system for kindergarten through second grade for the first time in the state’s history as part of a plan to address the state's "literacy crisis."

Each year from kindergarten through second grade, Louisiana students are required to take one of several literacy screeners to determine a child’s risk for reading difficulty and to figure out if they need extra assistance. In fall 2021, fewer than half of Louisiana’s K-3 public school students were at or above the benchmark on annual literacy screeners, according to the most recent report from LDOE.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said the state is in the midst of a "literacy crisis," and the state is taking a strategic approach to improving reading skills.

To address low literacy numbers, Louisiana is adopting its first accountability system for K-2, adding to systems already in place for early childhood centers and grades 3-12. The literacy-focused plan will measure student success across the four grade levels and will encourage “a fundamental shift in literacy instruction,” the department said in a release.

“We deeply believe that we need a back-to-the-basics approach in teaching kids how to read,” Brumley said. “Alongside that, we need to do everything we can to illuminate the challenges that we’re facing and the improvement.”

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What is Louisiana's new K-2 accountability system?

The K-2 accountability system, which was approved by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Aug. 24, would close an “accountability gap” that’s been present in Louisiana schools for years.

The state already had a nationally-recognized system in place for rating early childhood or pre-kindergarten centers, as well as a system in place for third-grade through twelfth-grade. Prior to BESE approving the plan, the state had never had a system in place for K-2.

“What presently exists is early care centers, daycares, they get performance profiles, and then beginning in third grade, our schools begin to receive accountability scores for their performance,” Brumley said. “There was a void between kindergarten and second grade where nothing existed in terms of school accountability for the sake of a letter grade.”

Under the current performance calculation for elementary schools, 75% of the score comes from how well the school did on state assessments, like the LEAP test. The remaining 25% is based on student progress. Students do not begin taking the LEAP test until third grade.

The plan passed after more than two years of discussions with stakeholders, research and planning within LDOE, the department said in a release. The plan currently focuses on literacy, but the department is looking at adding a math component in the future.

“With the implementation of a brand new accountability model for K-2, we didn’t want to try to do too much at one time,” Brumley said. “We decided to focus that accountability model on literacy at the beginning.”

With the new plan, scores from literacy indicator assessments will be a part of the School Performance Score and the District Performance Score, which are grading systems the state uses to measure the quality of schools and districts. Students will take the screener at the beginning of the year and again at the end of the year.

The state will measure the progress students made over the course of the school year, as well as their overall performance on the screener test.

Brumley said the new accountability system will not introduce a new test for students, but will standardize the system already in place for literacy screeners. Under the current system, schools can select one of four tests that must be given to K-3 students within the first 30 days of the school year.

“It will allow us to select one universal screening and then train educators on how to use that screening,” Brumley said. “Then we will have a consistent measure in place to know how the kids in that building stand.”

Under the new plan, all schools will use the same test. That will begin during the 2024-25 school year.

“This long-awaited enhancement to Louisiana’s accountability system will be an important tool in improving early literacy in our state,” said BESE President Jim Garvey in a release. “Accurately measuring and reporting the progress of basic skills development in grades K-2 is critical in helping system leaders and parents identify obstacles to reading, and ensuring that our youngest learners are on track for academic success.”

How will the new plan help with reading?

The accountability plan is part of an overall literacy strategy that emphasizes the “science of reading,” which is a body of research on reading and issues related to reading and writing.

One of the problems with the system currently in place is that it’s difficult to identify whether a student may have trouble with reading before third grade, which is considered a pivotal point for student success. Children who are unable to read by the end of third grade historically have high dropout rates, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“We know the importance of having kids reading on grade level and reading by the end of third-grade, and right now with our accountability system, the first indicator we have of those levels is after third-grade LEAP,” Brumley said. “This will take a lot of the guesswork out because between kindergarten and second grade, we will already know where that child stands.”

In fall 2021, around 49.2% of K-3 students were at or above the benchmark on the literacy screener. Around 53.2% of third graders were at or above the mark, as were around 52.5% of second graders. About 49.6% of first graders met the benchmark, along with 41.5% of kindergarteners.

Those marks actually represented a significant improvement from fall 2020, despite interruptions caused by the COVID pandemic. In 2020, more than half of students in all the tested grades were below grade level for literacy, including nearly 60% of kindergarten students.

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How do Louisiana's individual districts compare when it comes to reading?

The data provided for the individual school districts for fall 2021 is incomplete, largely to protect the privacy of students in some instances. Still, the data shows clearly that some parishes have done better than others on literacy screeners.

In fall 2021, three school systems had at least 95% of their students score at or above the benchmark for each grade level: Lafayette Parish, Sabine Parish and Tensas Parish. Red River Parish was above 95% for K-2, but only 36.1% of third graders were above the benchmark.

There are different standards the state is looking at for each year. In kindergarten, the state expects students to have phonemic awareness, which is the ability to identify and change the sounds in spoken words.

In first grade, students should know basic phonics – linking the sounds of spoken letters to the shapes of written letters. In second grade, the screeners measure oral reading fluency, or the ability to read aloud correctly and with the proper expression.

The third-grade screeners measure reading comprehension, which is a student’s ability to process and understand a written text.

Eight parishes had fewer than 20% of kindergarteners meet the standard on a screener in 2021: Claiborne, Jefferson, St. Helena, Richland, Avoyelles, Iberia, Orleans and Ouachita. Nine parishes were below 20% for first grade, including Jefferson, Union, Orleans, Franklin, Natchitoches, Madison, Concordia, Richland and Rapides.

For first grade, Union Parish had fewer than 20% of students meet the benchmark on two of the four testing options.

In second grade, three parishes had fewer than 20% of students hit the benchmark: Jefferson, Orleans and Richland. For third grade, only two parishes had pass rates below 20%: Evangeline and Concordia.