New N.C. reading push brings expenses, opportunities and lots of testing

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 14, 2014 

Lots more reading tests for third-graders, summer reading camps for up to 5,000 children and the need to restructure third- and fourth-grade classrooms next year are on the horizon as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools works with the state’s new “ Read to Achieve” mandate.

The goal is universally embraced, if not particularly new: Make sure all third-graders can read at grade level before being promoted.

“I think the spirit of this law is the exact right spirit,” Superintendent Heath Morrison said before a presentation to the school board Tuesday.

But execution of the law, which aims to stop “social promotion” and get children the reading help they need, is proving complex and expensive.

One of the state-authorized options to let students demonstrate skills requires children to take 36 small reading tests between now and May, with teachers documenting it all in hard copies. The printing alone would cost CMS more than $200,000, officials say.

“Our goal is to teach our kids to read, not to assess them so much that it takes time away from teaching them to read,” said Valerie Truesdale, CMS’ chief learning services officer.

Board member Rhonda Lennon was more blunt, citing the adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“This looks like third-grade hell to me,” she said, calling the program “a heavy-handed mandate.”

In 2013, the first time North Carolina rolled out tougher new exams, 53.4 percent of CMS third-graders and 54.8 percent of N.C. third-graders failed reading. CMS has 11,769 third-graders this year, so a similar result could put some 6,000 children at risk of retention.

Under the new law, N.C. third-graders who fail the end-of-grade reading test this spring have various routes to promotion.

One is the “portfolio” plan that lets students read passages throughout the year and answer questions to show they understand what they’ve read. That’s the option that requires 36 tests.

CMS officials say each test requires reading a one- to three-page passage and answering five questions, which will take an estimated 15 to 30 minutes. Students must get four of the five questions right to demonstrate mastery of that skill.

They also said reading experts at CMS and other districts have analyzed the passages provided by the state, and both districts concluded that many are above third-grade reading levels.

Wake County announced last week that it would do the portfolios for all third-graders because even strong readers could have a bad testing day that would jeopardize their promotion. Truesdale said CMS will do the same, but has applied to the state for an alternative approach to portfolios.

CMS is already giving students Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP tests, three times a year. The district has asked for permission to use those results as an alternative way to demonstrate reading ability. The state Board of Education will vote on that request in February, Truesdale said.

Third-graders who fall short on the end-of-grade exams and the portfolios must be offered a summer reading camp. Based on new beginning-of-grade exams the third-graders took at the start of the school year, CMS says about 5,000 are at risk of needing that option.

The state law mandates that the camps be three hours a day for six weeks. CMS has asked the state to approve a three-week, six-hour program, saying it would be more effective for students, more practical for parents and save more than $250,000 in transportation costs.

The state will provide $825 per child for summer reading camps, Truesdale said.

Children who still aren’t reading at grade level at the end of summer camp – or whose parents didn’t send them to summer camp – can go to a combined third-fourth-grade class in August or be placed in an “accelerated learning” class with at least 90 minutes of extra reading instruction.

Both settings must be taught by teachers whose data indicates strength in teaching reading, according to state law. That is likely to require rearranging classrooms, Truesdale said.

In November 2014, those students will be tested again for possible mid-year promotion to fourth grade.

Morrison, Truesdale and Lennon noted that the law provides more flexibility for charter schools to decide who can be promoted and called for the state to give school districts the same discretion. Charter schools are independently run public schools that are expanding at a rapid pace, especially in the Charlotte area.

Truesdale said the new program contains several beneficial aspects – from intensive monitoring and support for young readers to the addition of summer camps. But she said the volume of testing required puts a heavy burden on third-grade teachers, who are also preparing children for their first state math and science end-of-grade exams.

She also worries about the effect of testing on 8- and 9-year-olds, especially when they know they could be held back if they fail.

“If you’re a little person who struggles, that is a lot of assessment,” she said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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