Wake to give more tests to third graders to meet state requirements

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 9, 2014 

All of Wake County’s third-grade students will have to take 36 mini-tests in coming months, part of a plan to make more students eligible for promotion.

The tests are designed to create a reading track record for students. That way, schools can demonstrate that some who fail the state’s end-of-grade reading test this spring know the material well enough to move on to fourth grade.

But the amount of work this will create for third-grade teachers and more than 12,000 students drew complaints at a Wake County school board committee meeting on Thursday.

“This seems to be an onerous, laborious add-on,” school board member Bill Fletcher said.

The Read to Achieve program, passed into state law as championed by state Sen. Phil Berger, calls for students to reach proficiency in reading by the end of third grade. Starting this school year, third-grade students who don’t pass the state reading exam risk being sent to summer reading camps and/or having to repeat third grade.

A spokeswoman for Berger, the Senate president pro tempore, said Wake should stop complaining about Read to Achieve and focus on getting students to read.

“An alarming number of North Carolina children can’t read proficiently by fourth grade – and without our help, they’ll be unprepared for high school, college or a successful career,” Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Berger, said in a written statement. “So it’s disheartening to hear the school board has placed doing what’s easy and convenient ahead of ensuring our kids have the skills they need to succeed in life.”

‘Seems like torture’

Read to Achieve gives five “good cause exemptions” to promote a third-grade student who didn’t pass the reading exam. Many of the exemptions only fit certain categories of students: those who have a learning disability, were held back more than once already or have been in an English-as-a-Second Language program for less than two years.

A wider exemption in the law allows students to show through a “reading portfolio” that they’re proficient.

The portfolio includes 36 assessments covering 12 reading concepts. Students are to read a passage that’s 1-1/2 pages, then answer five multiple-choice questions.

Schools can only give up to three of the tests each week, so it will take at least 12 weeks to run through the 36 state-developed tests. Although the tests are untimed, school officials say each should take between 10 and 15 minutes to complete.

“This seems like torture to a struggling reader,” school board member Jim Martin said.

The portfolios are meant for students who are considered to be at risk of failing the end-of-grade exam. But school officials said they don’t want to run the risk of missing students who might fail.

“We’re covering our bases, regrettably, with this truckload of a portfolio,” Superintendent Jim Merrill told the board.

The state implemented new tests in the 2012-13 school year based on the more rigorous Common Core standards in reading and math. The result was that only 45.2 percent of third-grade students statewide passed the reading test last year. In Wake County, the state’s largest school system, the passing rate was 57 percent.

Merrill said the state had turned down requests by school districts to lower the passing requirements. Third-grade students had to get at least 36 of the 44 questions on the reading test last year correct to pass.

June Atkinson, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the higher standards are needed to make students ready for careers and college.

Wake isn’t alone in giving the mini-tests to all of its third-grade students. Representatives of the state’s 10 largest school districts indicated in a conference call Wednesday that they’d give the portfolio assessments to every third-grade student, according to James Overman, Wake’s director of elementary school programs.

Wake’s year-round elementary schools began administering the mini-tests last week. The traditional-calendar schools will begin giving them by the end of the month.

To try to reduce the workload, third-grade teachers are being told they can use the state-designed assessments to replace tests they would have created. But having to give the 36 tests still adds more duties for the teachers.

“Why would anybody want to teach third grade?” said school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton, a retired teacher and principal.

School board member Susan Evans said she’s worried that experienced teachers will try to avoid teaching in third grade.

State allocates $20.5 million

Wake has been escalating its efforts to promote the importance of literacy. Wake school leaders had encouraged parents of third-grade students to keep children reading during the winter break.

All of Wake’s elementary schools are holding parent information meetings this month to explain the Read To Achieve program.

It’s uncertain how many students will need to attend the summer reading camps that will last from six to eight weeks.

If the passing rate doesn’t improve from last year, as many as 63,167 North Carolina third-grade students might be at risk of failing this year.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education approved a formula for distributing $20.5 million to the school districts and charter schools to run the camps.

“The General Assembly decided to pass Read to Achieve, and they decided how much was needed for the summer camps,” Atkinson said.

Wake might get $1.5 million, or $292.43 per student, for the camps. Overman said that the state’s formula isn’t enough, so Wake will likely need a significant amount of local dollars.

“They need to do some serious revisitation,” Merrill, the Wake superintendent, said of the state formula.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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