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Stress test: Read to Achieve inspires more headaches than results 

Up to 60 percent of North Carolina third graders could be held back this year

Up to 60 percent of North Carolina third graders could be held back this year as a result of a mandate that some are calling a well-intentioned disaster.

Read to Achieve, passed by the General Assembly in 2012 and enacted this school year, requires third graders to demonstrate the ability to read at grade level before being promoted to fourth grade.

"The intent of the legislation is good," says Bill Anderson, executive director of public education nonprofit MeckEd. But between the financial burden schools could face and the logistics of additional testing, he considers some aspects of Read to Achieve a "train wreck."

More than 50,000 N.C. third graders failed to demonstrate proficiency last school year, in part because new tests based on recently adopted Common Core standards are "much more challenging" than previous proficiency tests, Anderson says. Under Read to Achieve's standards, they wouldn't have moved on to fourth grade without attending a remedial summer camp.

Before Read to Achieve was amended this month, its only testing method would have required those students to demonstrate reading proficiency through a "portfolio" — a series of as many as 102 standardized half-hour tests. In a typical 180-day school year, that could have created an incredible burden on both students and teachers and possibly prove counterproductive.

"We want our teachers to spend time teaching students how to read, not assessing their reading ability," says Adam Rhew, MeckEd's director of public policy.

Such pushback against the law's initial stipulations led the Board of Education to approve alternative assessment methods on Feb. 6. The revisions allow students to demonstrate reading proficiency through five different pathways — including the portfolio tests and beginning-of-grade and end-of-grade reading tests, which are already standard procedure — to be determined by individual school districts. Districts will also have the option of implementing state-developed alternative tests or Board of Education-approved local assessments.

Testing, however, could in and of itself contribute to the number of students not currently reading at grade level.

"Teachers are under so much pressure from tests like [end-of-grade exams]," says Vena Vaughn, program director of Charlotte nonprofit A Better World, which pairs tutors with elementary and middle school students who are struggling with reading. "We see a lot of students falling through the cracks, where teachers are maybe just trying to pass them along, and then we're shocked at the lack of reading skills they have for their grade level."

Vaughn says A Better World intervened last year when one of its clients was promoted by his seventh grade teacher despite reading at a third-grade level. The group worked with his school to have him held back instead, to catch up to his peers' proficiency.

Discrepancies among the tests are also an issue. Anderson says some of the passages developed for the portfolio were determined by a software program that evaluates readability at seventh or ninth grade levels, not third grade levels as intended.

Though it amended parts of the mandate, the Board of Education has yet to alter one of Read to Achieve's more controversial pieces — an intensive summer camp intended to bring students who don't test at grade level up to speed before the start of fourth grade. The summer camp is completely unfunded by Read to Achieve.

"The money has to come from somewhere," says Anderson. "The unintended consequences of this mandate will fall on the shoulders of the school districts." Rhew estimates that busing alone could cost Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at least $250,000 a summer.

The proposed structure of the summer camp — three hours per day for six weeks — could make it difficult for those most in need of the program to participate, says Rhew. Lower-income families, for example, could face childcare issues with parents working long hours and elementary school children coming home from camp midday.

School districts already plagued by budget cuts will encounter difficulties with staffing the summer camps, since, says Rhew, "many teachers already must work summer jobs. How do we make a program like this attractive to the best reading teachers when they likely rely on additional summer income?"

An advisory committee in February approved recommendations that could provide school districts with flexibility on the details of summer camp. They will be considered during the upcoming short legislative session.

Despite its flaws, even Read to Achieve's critics are eager for a life boat amid North Carolina's sinking literacy rates. (Only 45 percent of elementary students passed reading tests based on Common Core standards in May.) "I'm optimistic," says Anderson. "Because of [Read to Achieve's] good intent, it will require kindergarten through second grade teachers to be more diligent in keeping kids on grade level."

"[Read to Achieve] isn't just targeting third graders," says Paula Lombardi, a volunteer with the Augustine Literacy Project who tutors Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary students. "That's just when end-of-grade testing starts. We need system-wide consistency to intervene sooner with kids who are struggling. From kindergarten through third grade, students learn to read, and from fourth grade on they need to read to learn."

It's the years prior to third grade proficiency testing — not the last-ditch measures of portfolios and summer camps — that could be key to preventing Read to Achieve from becoming a too-little, too-late mandate.

"This can't just be a third grade issue," says Anderson. "It has to be about all the things that happen prior to the assessments. Because if a student couldn't go or didn't benefit from the summer camp, what's a fourth grade classroom going to look like?"

Lombardi says underlying reasons for reading difficulty, such as learning disabilities or students who speak English as a second language, must be identified and addressed early. Otherwise, "if a student is having problems that haven't been dealt with by third grade, the portfolio and camp might not work."

Falling behind has a snowball effect in the early years of reading, she says, and the more a child falls behind grade level, the harder it is and the longer it takes to catch up — a process that "might not be reasonable for schools to provide" particularly as budgets shrink and class sizes grow.

Read to Achieve remains a moving target; the advisory committee's recommendations included using the current school year as a "trial run."

"There are still a lot of questions and a lot of unintended consequences," says Rhew. "We're building the plane as we're flying it."

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