When last school year ended, roughly 37 percent of Johnston County third-graders were reading below grade level, based on their scores on the state reading test.
Under North Carolina’s Read to Achieve law, Johnston was supposed to retain those students – 963 in all – if they were still reading below grade level after attending a summer reading camp.
But because so many third-graders statewide were struggling to meet state standards, the N.C. General Assembly allowed school systems to administer an alternative test. When Johnston did that at the end of the school year, 724 of the 963 third-graders passed, avoiding reading camp and earning promotion to fourth grade. Another 135 passed after attending camp this summer.
Dr. Rodney Peterson, chief academic officer for Johnston County Schools, said he doesn’t think the school system lowered academic standards by using an alternative test.
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“We feel like one test in itself should not be used as the sole indicator for a student to either be retained or promoted,” he said.
The state approved two alternative tests for Johnston County Schools – the Text Reading and Comprehension assessment and the Measure of Academic Progress.
The Text Reading and Comprehension assessment, or TRC, is a component of the mClass 3D Reading program, which the state Department of Public Instruction adopted as the statewide diagnostic assessment for grades K-3. During the test, students read from a text and complete “follow-up tasks” that can include tasks in oral comprehension, retelling and written comprehension.
The Northwest Evaluation Association makes the Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP, essentially software that can create personalized tests for each student. Schools give MAP tests throughout the year, and teachers can use data from the assessments to tailor their lesson plans for students.
At its August meeting, the Johnston County Board of Education renewed the school district’s MAP subscription for $191,600. The schools use MAP in grades 1-8.
To show their third-graders were proficient in reading, all North Carolina school districts were allowed to propose alternatives to the end-of-grade test.
“It had to be approved by their local board, signed by their local chair, and their local board had to have a statement saying they verified that the local assessments were valid and reliable,” said Carolyn Guthrie, director of the state’s K-3 literacy program.
But Guthrie said some school districts realized the “cut points” they set for the alternative tests were too low. She said the DPI’s accountability division is reviewing those test scores.
The Read to Achieve law, approved by state lawmakers in 2012, mandated that students show reading proficiency by the end of the third grade. The change, which went into effect last school year, coincided with new end-of-grade tests based on the Common Core standards. The new tests produced some of the lowest scores ever by North Carolina students.
Third-graders who fail the mandatory end-of-grade test can still win promotion to fourth grade by qualifying for one of several “good cause exemptions.” Those exemptions include passing an alternative test, having a learning disability or demonstrating reading proficiency through a reading portfolio.
Third-graders who don’t qualify for an exemption are asked to attend a summer reading camp, a key component of the Read to Achieve legislation. During camp, students can pass a test or complete a reading portfolio to earn promotion to fourth grade.
The state says it does not require but does “encourage” students to attend the reading camp. A Johnston County Schools policy says students who don’t attend the camp will be retained.
This summer, 236 Johnston County third-graders attended a six-week camp at one of two schools. Of that total, 135 students earned promotion to fourth grade.
Peterson, Johnston’s chief academic officer, said the district has placed the other 101 students in a transition class designed specifically to “produce learning gains sufficient to meet fourth grade performance standards while continuing to remediate areas of reading deficiency.”
Students in transition are in a fourth-grade classroom but have a “retention label,” Peterson said. They have until November to meet reading expectations from third grade.
“If we have a kid that does not meet that in November, they will continue on, and the expectation is they will take the fourth grade end-of-grade test,” Peterson said during the school board’s August meeting.
Students who don’t pass the fourth grade end-of-grade test are retained, according to school system policy.
Johnston County Schools spent more than $647,000 on the summer reading camps this year. About $438,000 of that total came from state funding.
District spokeswoman Tracey Peedin Jones said the cost covered bus transportation, bus driver salaries, teacher salaries, curriculum materials and printing, among other things.
Thirty-eight teachers and 10 teacher assistants taught in 19 classrooms during the camp.
Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed.