Politics & Government

‘Moving backwards’ on reading. NC is not seeing gains from its Read To Achieve program.

North Carolina has spent more than $150 million since 2012 on the Read To Achieve program, but not much more than half of the state’s youngest students are reading at grade level.

The past six years have seen major changes in how reading is taught in elementary schools, with more testing and more support for students who need help, such as through summer reading camps. But as state education leaders reviewed the data Wednesday, they said that North Carolina isn’t seeing much progress in getting more children reading at grade level by third grade.

“The recent data that we’ve looked at over the past few months shows that in some grades we’re treading water,” said State Board of Education member J.B. Buxton, chairman of the student learning and achievement committee. “In other grades, like third grade, we’re actually moving backwards.”

The General Assembly passed Read to Achieve legislation in 2012. It was modeled on literacy efforts in other states, including the “Just Read, Florida!” program created by former Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001. The goal in North Carolina was to end “social promotion” by keeping students in third grade until they could read at grade level and providing extra support to help them get there, as the News & Observer previously reported.

The state has spent $151.7 million on Read To Achieve, much of it for digital devices for elementary schools and summer camps to help young readers who fall behind, as the News & Observer previously reported.

But the latest state data shows only 52 percent of first-grade students are reading at grade level. It rises to 56 percent in second grade.

“By the end of second grade we’re making very little progress,” Buxton said.

The passing rate on the state’s third-grade reading exams is now at 55.9 percent. It was at 60.2 percent in the 2013-14 school year.

Researchers at N.C. State University’s Friday Institute found no gains from implementing Read To Achieve.

The state Department of Public Instruction isn’t recommending any legislative changes to Read To Achieve. Instead, officials said Wednesday they’re looking at how to change implementation of the current law, including recommending ways for school districts to improve their summer reading camps.

“We really need to work a lot to make these reading camps something that is valuable for students,” said Tara Galloway, DPI director of K-3 literacy.

Galloway said more focus is needed on early literacy to make sure teachers provide their students with the foundational reading skills they need. She warned that not addressing reading at an early age will allow achievement gaps to take hold.

“If they move forward grade after grade after grade without those foundational reading skills it will catch up with them,” Galloway told state board members. “That’s what we’re seeing.

“The data is showing us that those foundational reading skills were not built back in the early grades and so by third grade it’s showing up that they’re not able to read to learn. They never learned to read so they can’t read to learn.”

Trip Stallings, one of the N.C. State researchers who reviewed Read To Achieve, echoed Galloway’s recommendations.

“The most important thing that you can consider is those early grade interventions,” he said.

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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.
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