Low reading scores lead Harrisburg to set new school mandates

With nearly half of all Pennsylvania fourth graders reading below grade level, state lawmakers are proposing more stringent measures to boost literacy — ones proven successful in other states.

Companion bills in the state’s House and Senate would require school districts to adopt reading curricula recommended and approved by a state task force.

“It helps the schools because then they don't have to go out and vet all these different vendors out there and worry if they're high quality,” said state Representative Jason Ortitay, one of the bill’s authors.

The legislation would also require educators to screen all students in kindergarten through third grade three times each school year to monitor their reading progress. If a student isn’t reading on grade level, the school must then design a plan to intervene.

“We want to intervene so that we get them where they need to be before their next screening,” Ortitay said. “We're tracking and we're putting accountability into this to make sure that we're not leaving any kids behind.”

The proposed legislation mirrors measures celebrated in Mississippi, where student reading scores have soared.

From 2013 to 2019, the state’s fourth graders jumped from 49th to 29th in the nation for reading proficiency, largely due to mandated interventions for elementary school students reading below grade level, curated curriculum lists and additional teacher training in the science of reading.

Some have gone so far as to call the state’s success the “Mississippi Miracle”, and North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia are among those looking to Mississippi for guidance as they adopt new education measures.

Education advocates with groups such as Reading Allowed and Teach Plus PA are now urging Pennsylvania to do the same.

While the Commonwealth’s average fourth-grade reading score has generally sat near or above the national average, that number has steadily declined since 2015. (Research shows that students who aren’t reading proficiently by the third grade are more likely to remain behind.)

At Pittsburgh Public Schools, fourth-grade reading proficiency dropped 14 percentage points between 2019 and 2023.

As a whole, Pennsylvania’s students still lead Mississippi’s, but that gap has narrowed as the states’ progress heads in opposite directions.

Those states’ fourth-grade reading scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — a test administered by the National Center for Education Statistics to measure student success — were just three percentage points apart.

Laura Boyce with Teach Plus PA says that while Pennsylvania sits behind Mississippi in terms of policy, the state is beginning to move in the right direction.

School districts are now mandated to integrate the science of reading into their professional development for teachers and reading specialists, and degree programs for new educators are required to emphasize “structured literacy” elements rooted in phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension.

But even if teachers are trained in evidence-based reading instruction, the curriculum they teach may not align. Pennsylvania’s Department of Education (PDE) provides core standards and guidance on curriculum, though it does not require districts to use any specific reading program.

“We know that if teachers are trained in the science of reading, but then they're told to use instructional materials that are not aligned and that are teaching students to guess rather than sound out words, and use other ineffective practices, then the impact of that teacher training is going to be limited,” Boyce said during a webinar last month.

Ortitay said lawmakers are working to amend the House version of the bill to ban materials that instruct students to look at pictures and guess the correct word — a technique known as cueing that research has proved ineffective.

The Allegheny County Republican also said he is working on an amendment that would create a task force of educators and their expert peers to recommend and approve reading instruction curricula.

This comes after leaders of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) expressed concerns over the bill’s current form, which vests that responsibility with PDE.

“PSEA’s members are not ready to establish a precedent whereby decisions on curriculum are handed over to PDE,” PSEA treasurer Rachael West told lawmakers at a Senate education committee hearing last month.

“Having a list of curricula that was vetted by peers on the proposed Council will encourage trust. It will also save teachers time, and ensure they are less susceptible to a glossy sales pitch.”

And school districts that haven’t already switched to a science of reading-backed curriculum will need to contract with one of the task force’s approved curriculum providers. New instruction materials alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To address those concerns, Ortitay said lawmakers are looking to secure $50 to $60 million in funding for the program in the next state budget, although negotiations are months away.

Photo: Annie E. Casey Foundation