by Debra Van Dyke
Reading scores for Alaska’s public-school students are unsatisfactory. In fact, Alaskan fourth-grade reading scores across all incomes rank our students dead last in the nation. Considering the importance of being able to read by the age of nine, this is unacceptable. I am encouraged by actions taken recently in the Senate, and present data here to encourage the House to advance these distinct reforms.
The best time to pass strong early literacy legislation would have been nine years ago when it was first introduced in Alaska; unfortunately, the legislature failed to take action then. The next best time is now. Alaska saw a five-point decrease in average fourth-grade reading scores between 2013 and 2019, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Mississippi, on the other hand, which does have strong early literacy policy in place, experienced an 11-point increase in average fourth-grade reading scores over that same period.
NAEP presents fourth-grade reading scores in three achievement levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. The NAEP proficient level does not equate to grade-level proficiency, since each state has different standards, but it does “[represent] solid academic performance” and is “the goal for what all students should know” at a given grade level. Because of a testing pause in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2019 test results are the most recent.
In 2013, 27.5% of all fourth graders in Alaska scored at or above the NAEP proficient level. Six years later, in 2019, only 25% scored at or above proficient. The 2019 proficiency level is nine percentage points below the national average.
However, Alaska has a diverse population and about 15% of students are considered English learners rather than non-English learners (children whose first language is English). Interestingly, while average total scores are lower for English learners than for non-English learners, English learner scores have increased significantly since 2013. Fourth-grade reading scores for non-English learners, however, have decreased. Between 2013 and 2019, average total scores for English learners increased from 154 to 170. Non-English learner scores, on the other hand, decreased from 218 to 210, which is barely within the NAEP basic level parameters. The goal today should be to help all Alaskan students reach the NAEP proficient level.
In comparison, Mississippi passed Read by 9 legislation in 2013, the year it was first introduced in Alaska. In 2013, 21% of all fourth graders in Mississippi scored at or above the NAEP proficient level. By 2019, six years after passing early literacy legislation, 31.5% of all Mississippi fourth graders scored proficient, just under the national average. That’s a 50% increase in fourth graders across all incomes ranking at or above the NAEP proficient level. At the same time, Alaskan fourth graders experienced a nine percent decrease.
Florida was the first state in the nation to pass a strong early literacy initiative in 2001. In 2002, 27% of all fourth graders in Florida scored at or above the NAEP proficient level. By 2013, 39% of fourth graders scored at the proficient level and in 2019, 37.7%. The percentage of Florida students scoring at the NAEP proficient level has been above the national average since 2003.
While NAEP data shows that students in disadvantaged groups such as those who are non-white, those in low-income households, and those whose first language is not English score poorly compared to advantaged groups, Alaskan students in advantaged groups are still scoring well below the national average. Regardless of race/ethnicity, income level, or English status, Alaskan fourth graders are not learning how to read.
The beauty of the pre-K through third grade literacy reforms contained within the Alaska Reads Act, which is currently under consideration in the House after having passed the Senate unanimously, is that they are designed to provide the most help to those students that are struggling the most. A primary component of the policy is assisting teachers in identifying students who are struggling the most with reading so that those students can then be provided the most amount of help.
Teaching our children to read by the age of nine is imperative. Implementing a strong reading program will vastly improve the lives of our children, who can then contribute to creating a better Alaska.
–Debra Van Dyke, former principal at Fort Yukon School and 25-year educator and administrator in Alaska