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New school law goal: Reading by the third grade

ST. PAUL -- An effort to improve young Minnesotans' reading abilities was buried by this year's Capitol budget fight, but reading experts say the plan is important for students' futures.

Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders shared a goal of encouraging more children to read by third grade, with new laws resulting in requirements that schools do a better job of informing parents about their children's reading progress.

"If parents are made aware and they understand what is going on," children will read better, said Assistant Commissioner Rose Hermodson of the state Education Department.

Among the new provisions is one requiring school districts to assess how well students read as early as kindergarten.

Just how reading is measured will be up to each school district, Hermodson said.

Danith Clausen, director of curriculum and instruction at Willmar Public Schools, said the law requires that all students "read well by third grade." That's believed to mean that all children will be classified as proficient at a third-grade level.

The Department of Education has not developed specific guidelines yet, but Clausen said she believes Willmar is in a good position to work with the new requirements.

"I see so much of what we've been doing these past couple years fitting in line with this," she said. The district has implemented the Reader's Workshop program in recent years and has been looking for ways to assess reading progress in kindergarten and first grade.

"We need to be identifying where kids are with reading proficiency," she said.

Districts need to work with parents "to find ways to make sure that child is reading at grade level," Hermodson said. While assessments are required annually, Hermodson said she thinks "the better districts" will do more frequent assessments.

The Minnesota Reading Corps reports that almost one in four third-graders does not reach basic literacy levels. That is 15,000 children a year.

Hermodson said that laying the reading comprehension groundwork by third grade gives students a much better chance of succeeding in school a few years later.

Dayton promotes a $50 per-pupil, per-year increase in state funding as helping schools, especially improving student reading. It is the first real increase in years, Dayton said, providing $133 million above baseline spending.

"A very significant achievement," Dayton called the funding increase.

Hermodson, like Dayton, worries about impacts of the state delaying $2.7 billion in state payments to schools. The delay was implemented in the past couple of budgets to help solve state budget problems.

Other education-related issues in new laws include:

- Integration funding, designed to help minority students, will end in 2013, but a commission will look into how to spend the money in a new format after that.

- Teachers and principals must be evaluated based on plans the state will form. About a third of teacher evaluations will be based on student improvement.

- Schools with fewer than 1,000 pupils will receive a funding boost.

- School districts no longer are required to loan money to the state when the state faces budget problems.

Tribune staff writer Linda Vanderwerf contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.