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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Republicans say reading is a top issue as they advance bill to increase screenings

A first grader at Milwaukee's Auer Avenue School reads a book at an event sponsored by The Milwaukee Urban League.
Emily Files
A first grader at Milwaukee's Auer Avenue School reads a book at an event sponsored by The Milwaukee Urban League.

Kari Baumann knew her son was behind in reading. But she said she didn’t find out until he was in sixth grade what the school hadn’t told her: year after year, her son scored far behind grade level on reading assessments.

"From kindergarten, first grade, second grade it was written: he does not meet benchmarks," Baumann told the Senate Education Committee. "Written by our teachers. I didn’t know that. I was never told that."

A bill passed by the Legislature this week aims to catch and address students' reading issues early — and let their parents know.

The bill would increase how often students are screened for reading issues in kindergarten through second grade from once a year to three times a year. If students score below a certain range, schools would be required to notify parents and come up with a personal reading plan.

Republican lawmakers say this is their first step to address Wisconsin’s reading failures.

"Reading is probably the number one thing we’re concerned about this year and next year," said Senate Education Committee chair Alberta Darling (R-River Hills.) "So we’re gonna really dig into that."

According to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 36% of Wisconsin’s fourth graders are proficient readers. Wisconsin also has the largest reading achievement gap between white and Black students.

Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) is one of the bill’s authors.

"Reading right now in Wisconsin is an absolute crisis," Kitchens said. "And what that means for the future of our state should really scare the hell out of all of us."

Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Jill Underly agrees reading needs more attention. Her proposal is to create a task force. DPI cabinet member Tom McCarthy testified before the Senate Education Committee.

"We want to take a look at literacy in the state of Wisconsin and figure out at the school level, at the district level, who is beating the odds?" McCarthy said. "Who is doing this the right way and what are they doing? How do we scale that up?"

But Sen. Darling castigated the DPI’s proposal on the Senate floor.

"They want to do another task force!" Darling said. "I’m sick of task forces."

In recent years, there has been growing concern that many teachers use ineffective reading instruction methods. Brain science shows that teaching students how to decode the sounds that letters make — known as phonics — is a crucial component. But there is opposition to a phonics-heavy approach, hearkening back to the "reading wars."

>>Push To Rethink Reading Instruction Gains Momentum In Wisconsin

One critique of the Wisconsin bill is that it doesn’t provide funding for teacher training or additional staff to help struggling readers.

"When you know something is broken — something as important as making sure a child can read by the end of third grade, what good are a stack of test scores saying ‘Yep, something is broken,’ without also providing the means to fix it?" said Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay.)

At least three Democrats voted in favor of the reading bill on the Assembly floor.

"Let’s not act like we don’t have an issue," said Rep. Lakeshia Myers (D-Milwaukee). "I work at a middle school in Madison. As an administrator, I’m pulling students for small-group instruction to help because they are three to four years behind [in] reading. I’m talking about students that's going into high school next year that's in the eighth grade."

Gov. Evers’ office has not said whether he will sign the reading readiness bill.

Either way, Republican lawmakers have hinted that there will be more literacy bills to come.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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