Gov. Dunleavy claims early success for Alaska’s new reading law. Some teachers say the story is more complicated.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy touted new data this month that he said demonstrates Alaska’s students between kindergarten and third grade are “experiencing significant advances” in reading as a result of a bill he signed into law in 2022.

But some educators tasked with implementing the law say its rollout has been bumpy and the data Dunleavy cited doesn’t necessarily prove the legislation led to improvements.

The Alaska Reads Act passed in a contentious vote in the final days of the 2022 legislative session, with support from both Dunleavy and former Sen. Tom Begich, an Anchorage Democrat. The law put in place new requirements that some educators say have been challenging to carry out with what they describe as crisis-level funding shortages.

The legislation, which was first implemented in schools at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, requires schools to provide students who are struggling to learn how to read with individualized learning plans, intensive tutoring and summer school options. It also adds a framework for the state to administer a new statewide reading assessment and aggregate the data to better track reading performance by children up to third grade.

When assessment results from the screening tool came in earlier this month showing Alaska students improved faster than students nationally, Dunleavy and Education Commissioner Deena Bishop attributed the success to the new reading measure.

“I’m encouraged by the improvements Alaska’s students are already experiencing because of the Alaska Reads Act,” Dunleavy said in a prepared statement. “As these results are beginning to show, when we implement effective education reform, Alaska’s students are capable of success.”

Yet some educators said the assessment was not necessarily indicative of the success of the Reads Act because most districts began using it in the fall, meaning there is no baseline for comparison before the law had been adopted. They also said the timed assessment disadvantages kids who speak slowly.


The assessment results touted by Dunleavy were from a screening tool called DIBELS, short for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. It was developed by Amplify, a private New York-based company, and the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning, and selected by the education department in 2022. Many districts had previously used other reading assessment tools, but the Alaska education department offered them the new tool free of charge, prompting most districts to switch.

In the 2023-24 school year, Bishop said, around 80% of Alaska students had been screened using DIBELS. The Mat-Su school district, the second-largest district in the state, had yet to incorporate the tool.

According to information shared by the state and presented at a board of education meeting last week, 42% of Alaska students in kindergarten through third grade tested “well below benchmark” at the beginning of the school year. By the end of the school year, that number was down to 28%. Meanwhile, the share of students who tested “above benchmark” went up from 19% in the beginning of the school year to 30% at the end.

Alaska’s reading improvements “surpass those observed in the rest of (the) national use base” which includes more than 2 million students across the country, according to Amplify.

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In Anchorage — the state’s largest school district — 24% of kindergartners were “on track” at the beginning of the recent school year. Nationally, 39% of kids were on track. By the end of the year, kindergartners in the district had nearly caught up to the national average: 66% of kindergartners were “on track,” compared with 68% nationally.

Chris Opitz, director of assessment at the Anchorage School District, was positive about the results from the DIBELS assessment. The district began using the test in spring 2023, meaning there was a baseline for comparison. That comparison showed a 10% year-over-year improvement in kindergarten through first grade metrics.

“It’s fantastic,” said Opitz. The Reads Act was helpful in honing the district’s focus on reading improvement, he added. But he said it could be years until the assessment measurements translate into rooted reading improvements by Alaska students.

“These results are great, but the research is really clear. When kids struggle, most often they need multiple years of accelerated growth to catch up,” said Opitz. “This isn’t something you do one day or for one period. This is every day, all year, year to year to year.”

Numerous other districts did not begin using DIBELS until the current school year, meaning teachers don’t know how the improvement measured this year compared to improvements made in previous years.

“Honestly, the Reads Act is working, but we need more data,” said Mindy Barry, principal at the Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School in Sitka. “We can’t compare the screener that we used last year to this year’s. Next year, we’ll be able to compare directly apples-to-apples — did we make the same amount of growth?”

Heather Baker, a fourth grade teacher at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary in Soldotna, also said information gleaned from DIBELS was still preliminary.

“Until we’ve done the same assessment for multiple years in a row, it’s really hard to calculate that data to see exactly what it’s representing,” she said.

Dunleavy spokesperson Grant Robinson said in an email Tuesday that despite this being the first year of statewide DIBELS assessment implementation, the governor’s confidence is supported by comparing Alaska’s results to those achieved nationwide.

“This suggests significant progress when viewed in the context of broader national trends,” Robinson said.

Robinson said Dunleavy acknowledges that assessing the full impact of the Reads Act will take years.

Clayton Holland, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District superintendent, agreed. He said he was encouraged by early results from the measure, but it would take years to feel confident in the results. Alaska’s efforts, he said, are modeled after similar ones in other states, including a 2013 Mississippi law.

“Mississippi got results eight years in on the process, and they had a wholehearted effort by the state behind them,” said Holland. “So I think it’s going to take time.”


The methodology of the DIBELS assessment, which is based primarily on a series of one-minute tests, has also raised concern among some teachers.

“As an educator, I get very minimal information from a one-minute read with my child,” said Baker. “That does nothing to tell me if they comprehended the passage. That does nothing to tell me specifics on their understanding of what we’re doing.”

“I have a lot of kids that will always score low because they’re shyer and they read slowly. I will have students who don’t miss a single word, but they only read 80 words in that minute because they talk slow,” Baker added.

Ronda Schlumbohm, a Fairbanks second and third grade teacher who taught in Alaska for 26 years before retiring this year, said she found the DIBELS assessment disadvantaged Alaska Native students who tend to speak slowly.

They were disproportionately showing up as “below proficient” in the timed assessments.

“I think it’s just — they’re not fast talkers,” said Schlumbohm. “Why is it that Alaska Native kids may be fine readers, but they’re being told that they’re below proficient because they can’t do it in a very fast way?”

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Harlee Harvey, a first grade teacher in Point Hope who was named 2023 Alaska teacher of the year, also said the assessment’s focus on speed made her students appear to be underperforming.

“If I gave them an untimed measure, I saw greater success with my students,” said Harvey. “I think trying to capture what students know in a series of four or five tests that are only a minute long is not helpful to inform instruction in a way that another measure might be.”


Harvey, Schlumbohm and Baker all said they embrace components of the science of reading methodology that underpins the Reads Act, but they raised concerns about the prescriptive approach that the state Department of Education and Early Development has taken in implementing the bill.

The Reads Act has changed the way educators communicate with families, Harvey said. Under the Reads Act, schools are required to inform parents if their children are testing below the threshold, even in cases when the teacher feel the results do not reflect a child’s ability.

“We are having to send a letter home to say, ‘Your kid is not performing well enough,’ and that became very damaging for the teacher-parent relationship,” Harvey said.

Morale in her school was “incredibly low” because of the Reads Act requirements, she said.

“The portrayal that this is working so well because one year of assessment data exists — I could see that being much more powerful statement if we had used the same assessment for the previous two or three years, so we could see, is that growth because of the Reads Act, or is that growth the typical growth that we see in students year to year anyway,” said Harvey. “I have a hard time saying, ‘Oh, it’s because of the Reads Act that our kids are learning or growing,’ when we don’t have the historical data that can show that.”

“Maybe the Reads Act is successful — I’m not saying it’s not. But really, the data doesn’t necessarily reflect that,” she added.

Schlumbohm, who has a master’s degree in literacy, said that results in the DIBELS screener don’t always match other assessments. One of her students scored “well below proficient” in the screening, but in the AK STAR exam, a statewide test developed in partnership with the state education department, the student scored above the 60th percentile.

“Because of the Reads Act, the principal still had to talk to the parents to say that this kid needs remediation and summer school,” said Schlumbohm.

“A screener is only supposed to be used to kind of say, ‘Oh, this kid might need a little bit of help.’ But we are basing children’s futures on a screener. And that, I feel, is wrong,” Schlumbohm added.

Robinson, Dunleavy’s spokesperson, said that while the governor understands that the DIBELS results do not directly correlate with other assessments like AK STAR testing, “they serve as a vital tool in the early stages of learning. They help in pinpointing areas where students require more support, thereby contributing to an overall strategy aimed at improving literacy across various assessment metrics over time.”

Under the Reads Act, Baker said teachers “lost a lot of autonomy.”

Since the Alaska Reads Act was put in place, Baker said, teachers have fewer opportunities to individualize instruction. “I used to be able to look at where students were and change their targeted pathway or plan or specific things that I knew would help them,” she said. Baker said the Reads Act was a factor in her decision to choose to teach at a higher grade level so she would not be required to contend with its requirements.


Other teachers have reached out to legislators to share their concerns about the implementation of the legislation.

Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat, worked for former Sen. Begich when the Alaska Reads Act was being drafted, and was involved both in crafting the Reads Act and advocating for its passage. Tobin said its implementation has been “a bit of a mixed bag.”

“We knew it was going to be rocky. We knew it was going to have fits and starts. We knew there was going to be lessons learned that we would possibly need to tweak,” said Tobin. The legislation had laid out a framework for an annual convening of educators to work through some of those tweaks, and that has yet to happen, she said.

One of those tweaks could involve the use of the DIBELS assessment, intended under the Reads Act to be used by most school districts — but not necessarily all.

Tobin said that when the measure was crafted, “there was recognition that that particular assessment might not fit every school district, and so there was a way for school districts to receive waivers.”

“I think that flexibility, which is in the law, should be reflected in the classroom, and I don’t think that’s being communicated very well to educators,” said Tobin.

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Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The AP and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at