The second graders crouched on the carpet.

“T,” the students yell while starting to stand.

“H.” Standing taller still.

“E.” Blastoff.

The students hopped.

It was only the second day of school, but the students in Alexa Feiereisel’s class in the Elkhorn Public Schools’ Westridge Elementary School already were practicing spelling and recognizing frequently used words such as “are,” “the,” “you,” “and,” “like” and “of.”

They snapped, clapped and hopped the words before returning to their desks to use colored markers to practice writing the words in composition notebooks.

Within 30 days of starting school, these students will be given the first of three reading assessments as required by a state law that goes into full effect this school year.

The assessments, given to students in kindergarten through third grade, are intended to identify students who may have a reading deficiency.

If a deficiency is detected, the law requires the school to provide students with a special reading intervention program and notify parents.

All Nebraska students won’t be taking the same assessment — districts pick an assessment from a list approved by the Nebraska Department of Education. The results are not reported to the department.

Some metro area districts, such as Elkhorn and the Omaha Public Schools, have selected the same assessment.

After third grade, students no longer are taught reading fundamentals. Instead, students are expected to learn from what they read.

“Reading is a skill that cuts across everything we hope a student learns in their K-12 experience,” said Cory Epler, chief academic officer for the Nebraska Department of Education.

The law, known as the Nebraska Reading Improvement Act, was introduced in 2018 by State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha.

“If you let a child keep going up in grades without the ability to read, they’re not going to do well in school,” Linehan said in an interview. “Kids who don’t do well in school too often end up dropping out or getting in trouble.”

Nebraska is not the only state to enact a third grade reading law.

Sixteen states plus Washington, D.C., require that students not reading proficiently by the third grade be held back, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2017, Linehan introduced a bill that would require schools to hold back third graders who were not reading on grade level. That bill was met with sharp disagreement, and the current law does not have that requirement.

Epler said many districts have been doing a lot of what’s outlined in the law, but now everyone in the state will have the same parameters. Districts were not given additional funds by the state to implement the changes.

Officials at Elkhorn and the Westside Community Schools said the requirements in the law are not radically different from what the districts had been doing.

“The law is kind of the starting point,” said Jadi Miller, director of assessment for Elkhorn. “And then we’ve found ways to kind of supplement around that to make sure that we have a full and accurate picture of what a student can do or where they might need extra support.”

Gregory Betts, director of professional learning for Westside, said when data showed that students entering and leaving kindergarten weren’t where they needed to be, the district started changing curriculum.

Betts said the district started the initiative in the 2015-16 school year and now uses scientifically proven methods to teach reading.

“We’re not guessing at words anymore,” said Linda Safranek, reading coordinator and elementary literacy co-chair for the district. “You will use the code that is in place. And use that code because the No. 1 comprehension strategy is to read the words correctly.”

Epler stressed that just because a student is found to have a reading deficiency, it does not mean that student belongs in special education classes.

Linehan, who said she is dyslexic, struggled with reading until high school.

“It’s OK. It is OK if your child is not at grade level,” Linehan said. “There’s ways to get them there.”

Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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