Third grade reading gets political

Posted by Lynn Bonner on February 3, 2014 

Third-grade students Iyman Mahmoud, left, and Dominick Riddle read to each other while participating in their two-hour literacy block at Dillard Drive Elementary School on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, as they move through “The Daily Five,” stations that involve working with their literacy teacher, interacting with iPads and learning in tandem.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Everyone wants kids to read at grade level or better. But who’s responsible when the plan to reach that goal is extraordinarily unpopular?

The new requirement that most third graders show they can read at grade level before promotion is making kids, teachers and parents miserable. Senate leader Phil Berger, champion of the Read to Achieve law, and June Atkinson, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, are at odds over what caused the misery.

The Republican Berger said the state Department of Public Instruction, run by the Democrat Atkinson, botched the law’s implementation.

Atkinson says the law needs to be changed and that she’s going to recommend that the legislature remove the requirement that students who aren’t reading at grade level (and don’t get a pass for some other reason) get extra help with their reading while still being promoted to fourth grade.

Berger had a sharp reaction Monday to Atkinson’s suggestion for such a fundamental change in the law, calling her position “disturbing.”

“One out of every three North Carolina fourth graders is reading below the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and research shows children who leave third grade unable to read are on a path to academic failure and life-long economic hardship,” Berger said in a statement. “Superintendent Atkinson’s continued insistence that we keep advancing kids who can’t read into fourth grade is disturbing and could amount to an economic death sentence for those students. We – the legislature, the Department of Public Instruction, educators and parents – can no longer accept allowing even a single child who has the ability to learn to leave third grade unable to read.”

Heightening the anxiety over a new law affecting thousands of students is the high failure rate on last year’s end-of-grade test in reading. Districts are worried that they’re going to be running “summer reading camps” this year for many more students than they anticipated or can afford. That worry triggered many districts to prepare to give third graders an alternative assessment – 36 mini-tests to be taken over the next few months. Those mini-tests soak up a lot of time, and school superintendents say the reading passages and questions are too hard for third graders.

Legislators questioned Atkinson about problems at a committee meeting last Tuesday, and Berger followed with a letter to Atkinson on Friday, thanking her for agreeing to fix the problems DPI created.

“Thank you for taking responsibility for the problems associated with DPI’s implementation of the Read to Achieve program and committing DPI to work quickly to solve the problems brought to light Tuesday,” the letter said. “I look forward to seeing the program implemented promptly and successfully.”

Though Atkinson said the grading of mini-tests may change so students who get at least 70 percent in a batch of 15 questions can pass, she said DPI is not responsible for the Read to Achieve stumbles.

“I believe that there are provisions of the Read to Achieve law that are not in the best interests of our children learning to read, and consequently, when people have pointed those out in letters and emails, it is very easy to point the finger at the Department of Public Instruction or at a local school district,” she in an interview Friday.

Rather, she said, the law needs changes. An advisory group she convened has recommended changes to the law, many of which Atkinson discussed at the committee meeting last week.

On Friday, she added that she wanted the legislature to remove the cornerstone of the law – retaining third graders who aren’t reading at grade level. Calling retention “a 20th-century artifact,” Atkinson said students should be promoted to fourth grade and get extra help to get caught up.

More than two dozen school districts are asking this week for the State Board of Education to approve local alternative tests so students who do well on those but still don’t pass the EOG can avoid summer reading camp and go on to fourth grade. If the board approves the alternatives, school districts – and third-grade classrooms – may shift out of crisis mode.

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