Nelson: Louisiana continues to struggle with literacy

Published 3:11 pm Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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Much has been written about Louisiana’s literacy crisis. Unfortunately, many of our students can’t read it. The latest LEAP results showed a continued decline in reading scores, with 41% of students below grade level. Though some blame COVID, Louisiana has struggled with literacy for decades. As a father of young readers, my own experience led me to bring a package of literacy bills this year to address this critical issue.

While my other bills promoting phonics instruction passed, the final key reform, prohibiting the promotion of third graders who repeatedly fail reading assessments, failed by two votes in the state senate. Adopted in Mississippi in 2013, this policy has helped their students blow past Louisiana in fourth grade literacy with the fastest improvement in the country. (Interestingly, their math scores improved at a similar rate.) Third grade retention works because it makes everyone accountable: students, parents, teachers and schools.

Critics misguidedly worry that too many students will be held back or that it will negatively impact minority students. In Mississippi, 8% of third graders were held back the first year, but this percentage fell in each subsequent year. Black students also score significantly higher in Mississippi than Louisiana, and there is a smaller achievement gap between black and white students. Ensuring minority students can read is the best way to help them achieve. Literacy is fundamental and reaches beyond elementary school, driving high school dropout rates, employment and crime.

I will bring the bill again next year. While it may be painful to look to Mississippi for inspiration, it is proof good policy can change outcomes if we are bold. In the wise words of my son’s favorite author, Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”


Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, is a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Reach Rep. Nelson’s office at 985-222-2638.