NC reading scores have not risen on national tests, despite Read To Achieve effort

Updated Oct. 30 with developments

North Carolina’s reading scores are now lower than before the state launched a major effort earlier this decade to boost literacy skills for young children, according to the latest round of national exams released Wednesday.

In 2012, state lawmakers created the Read To Achieve program to try to get more students reading at grade level by the end of third grade. But results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, show that both reading scores and the percentage of North Carolina students displaying at least basic reading skills is now lower than in 2011.

North Carolina also has lower math scores on the national exams now than compared to 2011. The tests have been given since the early 1990s and are comparable to prior years.

North Carolina’s drop in the past eight years mirrors a nationwide decline in scores in that time period. Officials said they hope the results will spur people to delve into the data to learn how to improve outcomes for students.

“We seem to have hit a plateau since 2009, and there does not appear to be a lot pf progress in the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” Lesley Muldoon, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets the standards for the tests, said in a news conference Tuesday. “It’s frustrating and difficult to understand given the work of dedicated teachers, education leaders and policy makers.”

The state Department of Public Instruction framed North Carolina’s results around the lack of progress nationally on the exams. DPI said that North Carolina’s drop in NAEP reading scores since 2011 is not statistically significant.

“Over the last 10 years, North Carolina, the nation as a whole and most states have shown little or no change in NAEP scores — either in math or reading,” DPI said in a press release Wednesday.

The new results could escalate the debate over how well the state is educating its 1.5 million public school students and what needs to change to improve results under Read To Achieve.

“Taken in context and analyzed over time, what these scores do make clear is that the path set forth in 2012 of the ‘Read to Achieve’ program must be changed if we are serious about improving reading in North Carolina,” Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said in a press release Wednesday.

Republicans took control of the General Assembly after the 2010 election with Read To Achieve being one of the signature programs for Senate leader Phil Berger. The state has spent at least $150 million on Read To Achieve, much of it for digital devices for elementary schools and summer camps to help young readers who fall behind, The News & Observer previously reported.

But the percentage of third-grade students passing the state’s reading test is lower than it was in the 2013-14 school year. The passing rate did go up this year after several years of decline.

NAEP scores down since 2011

The NAEP results indicate a similar lack of gains over time.

The exams, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, are given every two years to a representative sampling of fourth-grade and eighth-grade students in all states and some large districts. They offer a consistent way to track skills across the years, even as state exams are frequently revised.

The percentage of North Carolina fourth-grade students showing at least basic skills, or partial mastery of grade-level reading, dropped from 69% in 2017 to 67% in 2019. It was at 68% in 2011.

Among eighth-graders, the percentage scoring on at least a basic level dropped from 74% in 2017 to 72% in 2019. It was at 74% in 2011.

Nationally, it’s at 66% among fourth-graders and 73% among eighth-graders.

The state’s average reading scores in both fourth- and eighth-grades dropped between 2017 and 2019. They’re also both lower than the 2011 scores.

In a bright spot, the percentage of North Carolina fourth-graders scoring as proficient in reading is up from 34% in 2011 to 36% in 2019. It’s also up among eighth-graders, from 31% in 2011 to 33% in 2019.

A proficient rating means students have shown “solid academic performance” and “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.”

In math, the percentage of North Carolina fourth-grade students showing at least basic skills rose from 81% in 2017 to 82% in 2019. But it had been at 88% in 2011.

Among eighth-graders, the percentage scoring on at least a basic level rose from 68% in 2017 to 71% in 2019. It was at 75% in 2011.

The state’s math scores in both fourth- and eighth-grades increased between 2017 and 2019. But they’re still both lower than the 2011 scores. The percentage of students who scored at proficient in math in 2019 is lower than in 2011.

DPI focused Wednesday on the changes since the 2017 exams.

“North Carolina’s results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress held steady on exams administered during the 2018-19 school year, with fourth and eighth graders performing at levels similar to 2016-17, when the nationwide assessment of reading and math skills was administered last,” DPI said in the press release.

DPI is led by State Superintendent Mark Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016.

Berger introduced legislation this year to make changes to the program. But he didn’t include any new funding.

“There have been, I might as well acknowledge it, some disappointments as far as what we’ve seen in terms of outcomes,” Berger said at an April legislative committee meeting. “But the key thing is we recognize that and are trying to make corrections.”

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the bill in August as he called Read To Achieve ineffective, costly and a failure. Lawmakers have been unable to override the veto.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.