Elementary schools across Alaska started testing their students’ reading abilities last month in accordance with the newly enacted Alaska Reads Act.
Alaska students’ lack of proficiency in reading has shown in standardized tests in recent years. In 2022, Alaska 4th graders scored well below the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Just under a quarter of students demonstrated reading proficiency on the test, scoring next-to-last in the nation and only performing higher than New Mexico.
Educators say students with lingering reading comprehension problems have much greater difficulty later in school and, ultimately, in life. The screenings required in the Reads Act aim to identify those students and get them help sooner.
Many schools across the state had to pivot to implement elements of the legislation, but the Anchorage School District was among those who got a head start last spring.
ASD and 13 other Alaska school districts are using a new curriculum called Core Knowledge Language Arts. Anchorage schools piloted the program and even did a literacy screening in the spring, although the Reads Act didn’t require districts to start the screenings until this fall.
Reading comprehension — not just phonetics — is an emphasis of the curriculum. The new methods of teaching are not unfamiliar for Anchorage teachers, but they offer a different approach to teaching the science of reading to students with an added focus on writing.
“Basically, it’s a much more rigorous way of teaching,” said Nicole Sommerville, the Anchorage district’s director of Teaching and Learning. “Our old standards were based on minimum proficiency levels, and now we’re looking at students being proficient for life. We want them to have high skills, high standards, and be able to achieve what they want to in life.”
The district wanted to get started understanding the new tool right away, which is why they rolled out the new curriculum and literacy screenings last spring, Sommerville said.
“It’s a good dipstick,” she said. “That’s the point of the screener is to basically say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a concern here.’ Now, let’s dig a little deeper and see what’s going on. We do know that kids have good days and bad days. So we don’t rely just on the screener to determine whether or not the student is a proficient reader.”
So far, in the fall screenings required by the Reads Act, about 40% of Anchorage third graders performed below the standard. The Anchorage School Board’s goal is to cut that number in half over the next five years.
After the literacy screenings, districts are beginning to follow up on what are called Individual Reading Improvement Plans. This is the first of three times this school year that districts will be required to screen students and communicate the results to parents.
Parents must be notified within 15 days that the school has created such a plan for their student, and teachers must meet with parents within 30 days to comply with the Alaska Reads Act. Those communication requirements go along with some additional staff to help students reach reading proficiency.
Reading interventionists in Anchorage are tasked with providing direct support to struggling readers in small group settings, and professional learning experts help train teachers.
Reading interventions were already standard practice for teachers in Anchorage and have been for over a decade, the district says. Those support staff work for the district in Anchorage and were not supplemented by the state funding for the Reads Act.
“I think for Anchorage, we’ve really actually been focused on this for many years now,” Sommerville said. “This isn’t new for us. Some of the pieces, the minutiae, you know, the forms and the requirements, those may be a little different than what we’ve been doing. But we really have been focused on the science of reading and working on getting our kids to be proficient readers for quite a number of years.”
Statewide, the first round of literacy screenings wrapped up recently. Under the Reads Act, the lowest-performing quarter of school districts are slated to receive additional support.
The legislation also created and funded the Alyeska Reading Institute, a $5 million brick-and-mortar location in Anchorage that isn’t ready yet due to construction delays.
Still, its director, Carol Boatman, says reading specialists are providing support remotely to school districts around the state, and requests for help with students’ reading have been pouring in.
“Our focus right now is helping districts read their data, what does it tell them, helping them establish how to use the interventions they’ve already chosen, what interventions they’re going to use, but how to effectively use them,” Boatman said. “We’re also working with districts and parents with starting to set up tutoring.”
Seven reading specialists will support the state’s 54 school districts, while the Anchorage School District has 11 reading interventionists who split time between 20 schools, Boatman said.
Teachers are hopeful that increased transparency with parents will help students get the help they need to become lifelong readers.
“I think we’ll know a little bit more after the winter benchmark in December,” said Somerville, with the Anchorage School District. “Because then we can see kind of the trend for improvement, so the growth rate that we’re seeing with what we’re doing and what we have in place right now.”