Literacy legislation aims to fix Illinois’ low reading proficiency

Literacy legislation aims to fix Illinois’ low reading proficiency

Lawmakers in 2023 required the Illinois State Board of Education to create a public school literacy plan using evidence-based reading instructional practices. A follow-up bill awaiting the governor’s signature would require school vendors to follow that plan.

Illinois students are struggling to meet proficiency in reading across all grades in Illinois, but there’s a plan to fix that.

Addressing the problem before students complete third grade is critical, because reading proficiency at that point will be a significant predictor of their future success in school and life.

“Students who do not ‘learn to read’ during the first three years of school experience enormous difficulty when they are subsequently asked to ‘read to learn,’” according to the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators.

Thousands of Illinois third graders are set to experience enormous difficulty in the years to come because nearly three-quarters did not meet Common Core Standards in reading on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness in 2023.

Lawmakers understand the poor state of reading proficiency in Illinois. In July 2023, they amended the Illinois School Code to create the “State Literacy Plan.” It aims to address the low rates of reading proficiency in Illinois public schools.

In Illinois, local boards of education have control over curriculum and other policy decisions. That local autonomy means the state cannot mandate schools implement the literacy plan or dictate other statewide procedures, leaving local decision-makers to determine what is best for their districts. The plan offers guidance to Illinois public school districts seeking to achieve academic gains in literacy.

Lawmakers pass literacy bill, create literacy plan

Illinois lawmakers amended the school code in July 2023 to include a section on literacy to address the low rates of literacy in Illinois public schools.

The legislation outlines specific actions which the Illinois State Board of Education must undertake to support literacy efforts in school districts:

  1. By Jan. 31, 2024, create a comprehensive literacy plan for Illinois which would explore evidence-based literacy research to support the literacy needs of all Illinois students.
  2. By July 1, 2024, make available to each Illinois public school district a rubric to evaluate curricula and implement evidence-based reading instruction. In other words, this is a template to support districts’ development of literacy plans and guidance on training literacy coaches to support teachers.
  3. By Jan. 1, 2025, develop and make available training opportunities for educators in teaching reading that are aligned with the comprehensive literacy plan released the year prior by ISBE.

The Board of Education released the Illinois Comprehensive Literacy Plan in January 2024 in accordance with the legislation. It is intended to serve as a “roadmap to enhance and unify core literacy instruction efforts statewide.”

According to Erica Thieman, ISBE’s director of standards and instruction, “At its core, this plan is a resource that we hope will serve as a springboard to bring about local school, district, region, and statewide movement to elevate literacy instruction and ensure every learner, no matter where they reside, is provided with equitable opportunities to gain the literacy skills necessary for lifetime success.”

The literacy curriculum evaluation rubric, required to be developed by ISBE by July 1, 2024, has also been released.

Ultimately, the literacy plan has three goals:

  1. Every student receives high-quality, evidence-based literacy instruction.
  2. Every educator is prepared and continuously supported to deliver high-quality, evidence-based literacy instruction.
  3. Every leader is equipped to create, maintain and sustain equitable conditions for high-quality, evidence-based literacy instruction.

The term “evidence-based” instruction denotes “activities, strategies, or interventions supported by strong evidence from well-designed experimental, quasi-experimental, or correlational studies” with ongoing efforts to assess their effects.

A key component to the plan’s efforts to encourage evidence-based literacy instruction is the seven components of literacy: verbal expression, understanding the sound of words, connecting text to word sounds, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and writing.

The plan includes guidance for school districts on core instructional practices for each of the seven components of literacy in different grade levels, but it does not mandate districts develop curriculum to align with the seven evidence-based literacy components.

New educator testing requirements

The amendment to the school code also adds new language around educator testing. It requires ISBE to develop a plan to test student teachers or teaching license applicants on their knowledge of literacy, among other things, before they can receive their teaching license. The deadline to develop and implement this additional content area exam for teacher licensure is July 1, 2026.

New legislation aims to assist in implementation of plan

The school code does not mandate schools or school districts to follow or implement the literacy plan’s findings on best literacy instruction practices. The plan emphasizes flexibility and local autonomy to allow “district-specific adaptations” and exhorts individual school districts to “design local assessment strategies and allocate resources based on their unique demographics and context supported by data and current evidence-based instructional practices.”

However, Illinois’ Senate Education Committee passed a bill in June to require “support provided by a vendor or learning partner approved to support a school’s continuous improvement plan related to English language arts must be based on the comprehensive literacy plan for the State developed by the State Board of Education.” Illinois schools have approved “learning partners” who receive federal Every Student Succeeds Act funding to support learning at the lowest-performing schools. This bill would require such vendors to utilize the evidence-based literacy instruction outlined in the state’s comprehensive literacy plan.

It awaits the governor’s approval.

Illinois students deserve a quality education

Students in Illinois schools should receive quality teaching which prepares them to flourish in life after graduation. Too many students are struggling to meet grade-level standards in Illinois public schools. This threatens students’ futures plus threatens to be a burden on the rest of society.

Ensuring students have the tools and instruction necessary to read at grade level in their early years of schooling and guaranteeing educators have the tools necessary to provide high-quality literacy instruction can help keep students engaged in their later years, through to high school graduation and brighter futures.

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