FL Legislature 2021: Thousands of schoolchildren can’t read proficiently; Lawmakers want to help fix that

3rd grader reading. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

In some parts of Florida, from impoverished communities to affluent areas, many children are struggling with reading, a foundational skill that paves the way to student success.

But abysmal state test scores reveal that many Florida students are far behind.

In Gadsden County in North Florida, only 10 percent of children who took a 3rd grade reading exam in 2019 were considered proficient in the subject.

In DeSoto County’s school district in southwest Florida, the results showed just 12 percent proficient.

Even in St. Johns County, on the Atlantic side in northeastern Florida, the district had the highest percent of proficient readers on the 3rd grade exam, 51 percent. Still, that means about half of the other third graders tested were not considered proficient.

Florida lawmakers, including new House Speaker Chris Sprowls, are trying to boost literacy at a time when public schools continue to work through complications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sprowls is pushing a “home book delivery” initiative for elementary students who are struggling readers.

A Republican representing part of Pinellas County, Sprowls decided to take charge in helping to improve Florida’s student reading levels.

“Maybe our state government can’t send a person to the Moon, but we can try to make sure that every child in Florida can read and understand a book about the Moon by the year 2030,” according to a November speech.

Statewide exams

Last year, the pandemic led to school closures and cancellation of statewide exams.

But this year, kids are required to take the state exams — particularly, for Florida, the pivotal 3rd grade reading exams.

Third grade reading levels are a strong focus in education initiatives aimed to improve student success.

In order to measure how Florida students are performing in reading and other subjects, kids take the Florida Standards Assessments. The FSA in reading is referred to as ELA — English Language Arts.

Because of exam cancellations last year, the most recent reading scores in Florida are for 2019.

When kids get scores back, they are graded 1 through 5 in terms of performance. A 3 is considered a passing score on the 3rd grade reading exam in Florida, which the state defines as a “satisfactory” understanding of the subject material. But students “may need additional support for the next grade/course.”

However, at least a 4 means a student is proficient in the subject. “Proficient” means: “Likely to excel in the next grade/course.”  And a score of 5 is even better, showing “mastery” of the subject.

Importance of third-grade reading levels

Why do educators and lawmakers put so much emphasis on third grade reading levels?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, reading becomes a foundational tool for the rest of a student’s school career in every subject after entering the fourth grade.

“Third grade has been identified as important to reading literacy because it is the final year children are learning to read, after which students are ‘reading to learn,’” the NCSL wrote in 2019.

The Florida Department of Education also explains that, “Students who have trouble understanding what they read find it very difficult to keep up.”

“As students progress through the grades, the text and tasks that are required for students to understand what they are reading are more complex,” former Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote in an informational document to parents about the importance of third-grade reading skills.

“Textbooks become more difficult to understand; reading passages are longer. Students use reference books, websites and other written materials to do research for history reports, science projects and other schoolwork.”

The document elaborates that students who get frustrated due to reading challenges are likely to struggle in school for years, which can further affect opportunities in their adult life.

The scores for the third-grade ELA are used to determine if a student is reading at grade-level and low-performing students could need supplemental education to get them back on track, or even repeat the third grade.

That’s why third grade reading levels are often a measuring point when deciding what state lawmakers could pursue in terms of legislation.

Legislative moves to improve literacy

Some initiatives in the 2021 legislative session hope to improve overall literacy levels for Florida students.

Earlier this month, House Speaker Sprowls announced a partnership with Age of Learning, a California-based private company dealing with digital education programs, to provide a free digital library called ReadingIQ to all Florida families until December 31, 2021.

Jenna Sarkissian, a spokesperson for the House Speaker, said that the partnership was a “generous act of corporate philanthropy” from Age of Learning.

In addition, a bill in the 2021 session might incorporate more private entities into Florida reading initiatives.

HB 3 is sponsored by Rep. Dana Trabulsy, a Republican who represents part of St. Lucie County, and would work provide monthly book delivery to students who are reading below grade level, generally meaning a score below a 3 on the statewide reading exam.

The bill would have the Florida Department of Education, or a “third-party entity contracted to administer the initiative,” to provide struggling students  one book per month in order to make reading more accessible to these students “at no cost to families.” The funding will be split between the DOE or a third party and participating local districts.

However, some of the details are not yet clear on how this initiative will be implemented should the bill pass, and may involve entities outside of the Department of Education and Florida school districts.

What’s more, part of the bill requests that school districts participating in the initiative partner with at least one nonprofit organization to “raise public awareness of the initiative, perform fundraising, and conduct or facilitate family literacy.”

Keep in mind that these are just some initiatives that could help struggling readers. Others could include after-school tutoring, extra classes and other measures.

Some believe that any help to improve childhood reading scores is welcomed.

Bill Montford, a former state senator and former superintendent for Leon County schools, now serves as the chief executive officer for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. In a conversation with the Phoenix, he said that the association is in favor of the HB 3 bill.

“Anything we can do to put more books in the hands of children,” Montford said, “the better off we are.”

District # of students tested % of students  proficient on 2019 3rd grade reading exam
ST. JOHNS 3051 51
SARASOTA 3215 42
NASSAU 884 41
BAKER 333 39
SEMINOLE 4912 38
SANTA ROSA 1994 37
MONROE 615 37
CHARLOTTE 1006 37
FLAGLER 895 37
OKALOOSA 2463 37
CLAY 2684 36
WAKULLA 343 36
SUMTER 642 36
GILCHRIST 187 35
WALTON 815 35
COLUMBIA 845 34
BREVARD 5290 34
CALHOUN 138 34
LEON 2584 33
COLLIER 3487 32
MIAMI-DADE 26170 32
BROWARD 20175 31
BAY 1839 30
JACKSON 417 30
ALACHUA 2333 30
LIBERTY 104 29
LAFAYETTE 82 29
CITRUS 1121 29
INDIAN RIVER 1382 29
PASCO 5959 29
LAKE 3332 29
BRADFORD 217 29
VOLUSIA 4775 29
SUWANNEE 464 29
ORANGE 16544 29
UNION 162 28
LEE 7288 28
HERNANDO 1772 28
PINELLAS 7390 28
GLADES 151 27
ESCAMBIA 3290 27
PALM BEACH 14940 27
HILLSBOROUGH 17761 27
MANATEE 3957 27
WASHINGTON 256 26
OKEECHOBEE 479 26
HARDEE 415 25
TAYLOR 197 25
HOLMES 257 25
MARTIN 1398 25
DUVAL 10579 25
OSCEOLA 4875 25
DIXIE 169 24
POLK 8437 24
GULF 133 22
LEVY 462 22
HIGHLANDS 905 22
FRANKLIN 110 22
ST. LUCIE 3210 22
HAMILTON 141 20
HENDRY 537 20
MARION 3507 19
PUTNAM 836 19
MADISON 204 17
DESOTO 477 12
GADSDEN 408 10
JEFFERSON 60 9
* Proficiency means a score of 4 or 5 on the 3rd grade reading exam. A score of 3 is considered passing but not proficient.
* Phoenix analysis combined percent of 4 and 5 results based on DOE exam data