State Emphasis on Early Learning and Trends in Balancing Local Control with State Accountability

October 31, 2019

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A strong foundation is essential to future success. Research has shown that reading proficiency by third grade can determine later achievement.[1]  Across the country, states have instituted several initiatives in order to help students achieve proficiency in reading and math by third grade. It is increasingly important that we do more as recent NAEP scores show that students performed worse than they did two years ago in three out of four categories (all but 4th grade mathematics). Which is why we are seeing more state legislatures include required assessments and interventions to bolster student proficiency and growth.

In 2019, nearly every state considered policy initiatives on early education with over 100 pieces of legislation introduced. More than 10 states passed measures to improve early education including screening of reading skills (ND HB 1461) and targeted funding to improve reading instruction (AL HB 388), among others.


The majority of states require a screener or diagnostic assessment to determine reading competency and many require math assessments in grades K-2.  These diagnostic assessments inform progress, individual intervention, and retention. There is greater autonomy than ever as districts choose an assessment, rather than one statewide screener.[2] The rationale behind a district choice model is to allow a district to use an assessment that is best for their students, over a “one size fits all” state assessment. The data gained from screeners and diagnostic assessments is crucial for measuring improvements and identifying students who may need additional instruction.


Historically, third grade retention is a popular strategy to assist students not reading at grade level. Today, most states are moving beyond retention and putting more resources into intervention programs to bring students up to grade level (predominately in literacy).[3] Each student may require a unique intervention program and in many cases, states allow localities to choose intervention instruction.

For example, Colorado has a list of approved interventions from which districts can choose are best for their students. This year, Colorado updated the READ Act to in improve outcomes to ensure grade level reading proficiency by the end of the third grade. In part, the updates included allowing per-pupil intervention funds to be used to purchase approved core reading instruction programs. The Colorado READ Act endorses district flexibility programming as a way to maintain a level of accountability over the instruction in the classroom.[4] Giving districts flexibility with state dollars to purchase vetted reading instructional programs, Colorado hopes to see improved outcomes in early learning.

Similarly, in Virginia, additional resources are provided to school divisions for reading intervention students to all third grade students who do not meet reading diagnostic test requirements approved by the Board of Education. Reading intervention services can include special reading aids, volunteers supervised by a certified teacher; computer-based reading tutorial programs or other services the school division deems appropriate.

Industry Impact

“While it is important that districts have the flexibility to choose a partner that will resonate with its community and student population, it is even more important that the tools they use are proven and can demonstrate student growth over time. There needs to be some accountability—which we are starting to see nationally—built into the system that allows for some autonomy while also ensuring that student gains improve and not flatten over time.”

– Jon Hummell, National Manager of State Initiatives, Lexia Learning, A Rosetta Stone Company

Read more on national education trends from MWC’s National Education Team:


[1] The Annie E. Casey Foundation, Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters (2010).

[2] Council of Chief State School Officers, K-2 ASSESSMENTS: An Update on State Adoption and Implementation (2019).

[3] Education Commission of the States, State Kindergarten-Through-Third-Grade Policies (2018)

[4] Col. Rev. Stat. §22-7-1202(1.5) (2019).