With year-round school under way and traditional calendar school about to start in a couple of weeks, so begins another year of the Read to Achieve program.
The 2012 law enacted by the NC General Assembly requires that all public school students in North Carolina must be reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. Studies have shown that students who aren’t proficient readers by the end of the third grade are more likely to drop out of high school.
But the law and its implementation has been troubling for many in elementary education. For starters, the system used to measure reading proficiency known as mClass has been criticized by teachers for not being aligned to the academic standards their students are expected to meet and for requiring a level of reading knowledge that is not age-appropriate for the students.
Despite that, teachers continue to faithfully administer these one-to-one reading comprehension and fluency tests to students three times a year in grades 1-3 and twice a year in kindergarten. At each of these three benchmark test periods, teachers will test each student individually multiple times to establish a reading level. This process can take two to three weeks every time, and it takes away valuable time that should be devoted to reading instruction.
Students are monitored throughout the early elementary grades. Anyone who isn’t meeting or exceeding the benchmarks along the way receives additional reading support.
When kids enter third grade, they take a Beginning of Grade reading test that is similar in style to an End of Grade (EOG) test. Anyone who scores at the 3, 4, or 5 level is considered to be reading on grade level, while students who score a 1 or 2 are considered to be below grade level and must participate in a yearlong program to improve their reading proficiency in hopes of passing the EOG or reaching a high-enough mClass reading level.
There are a number of pathways for a student to demonstrate proficiency or be exempted from reading at grade level. Students who score a level 3, 4, or 5 on the third grade EOG test are automatically considered proficient. A student who scores at level 1 or 2 on the Reading EOG may also be considered proficient if the student masters reading at the end-of-year reading benchmark in mClass for third grade. Students may also receive exemptions if they meet conditions for special education or learning the English language.
Students who aren’t proficient don’t stay in third grade. They move to fourth grade and participate in either a summer reading camp or a track out reading camp, and they continue to receive extra reading support during the school day. There’s an effort in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) to include students rising into grades 1-3 in reading camps as well.
While the goal is to have all students reading on grade level by the end of third grade, it has put a tremendous amount of additional work on the teachers in kindergarten through third grade. Not only do they need to spend about 6-9 weeks a year assessing each student individually during the reading block instead of teaching reading, they also must plan and implement additional reading instructional support for students who aren’t reading proficiently.
Teachers aren’t shy about doing whatever it takes for their students to be successful, and the early elementary teachers are just as motivated as ever to use the data from mClass assessments to improve their students’ reading ability, but it is coming at a cost of valuable and limited instructional time.
NCDPI and the General Assembly should evaluate the Read to Achieve program to measure whether the effort is producing the results it intended without short-changing the students. Fourth grade NAEP reading scores would suggest there is a positive effect since there has been a 13-point climb between 1998 and 2015 in average reading score. But that is just one measure and it isn’t clear if Read to Achieve is driving that improvement from 2012-2015.
It’s time for a comprehensive review of reading progress for students in grades 1-5 that is broken down by subgroup, and particularly pays attention to the progress students made after leaving third grade. The review should include multiple measures of student performance and a survey of K-3 teachers to discern how to improve reading instruction and assessment. Such an evaluation would give lawmakers and policymakers the information they need to improve education and ensure assessments are aligned with standards going forward.