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Education groups split over bill that would triple reading tests for young students

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Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) and Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) answer questions on their bill addressing how young students are tested on their reading skills.

MADISON (WKOW) -- A bill proposed by legislative Republicans would triple how often children are assessed on their reading skills through second grade. Students who are struggling would then be labeled 'at-risk,' triggering an automatic intervention.

The Assembly's education committee held a public hearing for the bill. Lead authors Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) and Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) said the enhanced testing was necessary due to the state's reading scores declining in recent years.

"What's a higher priority than this? Getting kids reading at an early grade," Kitchens said at the hearing's outset.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Wisconsin's reading scores for fourth-graders in 2019 aligned closely with the national average.

However, the state's scores declined in recent years. In 1998, 31 percent of students tested below the NAEP basic level; that number increased to 34 percent by 2017.

Currently, students in Pre-K through second grade have one yearly reading skills assessment. The bill before lawmakers would increase screenings to twice a year for preschoolers and three times a year for kids in kindergarten through second grade.

Students who score in the bottom 25 percent of their school's class would be considered 'at-risk' and the school would then need to craft a special reading plan for the student based on their deficencies.

"The assessment tool will give you that 25 percent and then that assessment tool will give you the interventions so that is pertaining to your school,"Bernier said.

According to the state's lobbying registry, 11 organizations registered against the bill while 7 registered in favor. Different reading or educational groups were split on which camp they fell into.

Unfair funding demand?

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction gave testimony in opposition of the bill. Among its concerns were the demand districts and charter school provide three times as many tests and automatic intervention without providing more funding.


"No funding is provided for this intervention," the DPI testimony read. "Arguably, schools/districts would have to use existing local funds."

Other educational groups, including the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance, raised similar concerns in their objections. Bernier scoffed at the idea schools would be put in a fiscal bind by her bill.

"There is absolutely no unfunded mandate here," Bernier said. "First of all, the biggest mandate in the entire state is that we teach our children how to read. That is our mandate."

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, school districts and independent charters received a total of $2.1 million in each of the last two years to perform reading skill assessments; they'll get that same amount this year and next year too.

Districts spent a total of $1.9 million on testing in the 2019-20 year and $1.6 million in 2020-21. Bernier said that's an indicator state funding is already enough for the enhanced testing; opponents argued those sums cover one round of testing, not three, and also don't cover the costs of mandatory interventions.

The DPI testimony also worried the outlined interventions were too narrow.

"This intervention addresses the alphabetic principle, which is one component of reading," the DPI report stated. "It does not address comprehension - reading or listening. It does not address vocabulary. This type of intervention may not be appropriate for every student who is in need of intervention."

Bernier said the bill will next have a hearing before the Senate's education committee next month.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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