Time to close NC’s reading gap

November 2, 2013 

Occasionally there’s a story about a prominent college athlete who is unable to read or who can read only at an early elementary school level. The revelation is cause for wonder and outrage. How could someone advance so far in school without a skill that is fundamental to learning?

But such cases shouldn’t really be so surprising. Our system of public education routinely pushes along a substantial percentage of students who can’t read at grade level. The overall failure rates in grades three through eight on the reading exams are 14.8 percent in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, 22.6 percent in Wake and 41.5 percent in Durham. This week, those failure rates will get even more troubling with the release on Thursday of statewide results from new end-of-grade tests. It’s expected that more than 40 percent of students in grades three through eight will score below their grade level.

Those who get to third grade still failing to read are unlikely to ever catch up. Instead they will cope and hide their lack of reading ability through increasingly frustrating grade levels until they tune out or drop out.

Mary Carey, a Chapel Hill mother, has formed a parents group, BootstrapsPAC, committed to helping schools teach every student to read well. Recently the group posted yard signs with gibberish to express what it’s like for nonreaders. She said the condition shouldn’t be tolerated at all, let alone at such high percentages. “There’s a sense of resignation that some kids are not going to read,” she said. “They are like our throwaway kids.”

June Atkinson, the state superintendent of public instruction, is bracing for the statewide results from the new test based on the common core curriculum. She said the increase in the number of students not at grade level doesn’t mean students are losing ground. What it means is expectations have gone up.

Nonetheless, Atkinson said the extent of sub-par reading skills is a major problem for public education that largely reflects the extent of poverty. North Carolina has the nation’s 12th-highest poverty rate with 1.7 million residents below the federal poverty line, or 18 percent compared to 16 percent nationally. A 2012 report from First Focus, a national child advocacy group, estimated that 26 percent of children in North Carolina live in poverty, compared with 22.5 percent nationally.

“Poverty does have a huge impact, as a general rule, on reading achievement,” Atkinson said. “When a kindergarten teacher has students who have never held a book, who don’t know front from back, or ‘A’ stands for apple, then that teacher has a tremendous job trying to make up what that child has not had prior to kindergarten.”

Atkinson is pushing for more preschool opportunities. She also wants to eliminate the long summer break during which many poorer children regress and well-off children continue to develop. That just widens the performance gap between students from low-income families and those from families with more education and resources.

A new Read to Achieve program passed by the General Assembly and effective this school year will try to end the process that allows poor readers to be passed up through the grades. Students who are not proficient in reading at the third-grade level will have to receive additional instruction in summer reading camps. Those who are still deficient and do not fit one of the law’s exceptions will be held back.

Read to Achieve brings welcome focus to the problem of weak reading skills, but it raises concerns about whether school systems will face third-grade classes swollen by students held back and how the program will be funded. It’s good that lawmakers have addressed the issue, but they should be prepared to adjust the law in response to experience and be willing to fund preschool programs where the reading gap can be closed before it’s too wide for most children to cross.

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