Progressive Voices

North Carolina’s looming third grade retention crisis

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More than half of North Carolina’s third graders could be held back this year as districts work to implement the state’s new “Read to Achieve” law. The program’s goal of ensuring that all third-graders can read on grade level before being promoted to fourth grade is undeniably laudable, as researchers have widely recognized that reading on grade level by the end of third grade is one of the most crucial markers in a child’s educational development. But the implementation of the Read to Achieve program is proving costly, time-consuming, and fraught with potential negative unintended consequences for the state’s third graders.

Last year, more than 50,000 of the state’s third graders failed to demonstrate proficiency on the state’s reading assessment, in part because the adoption of the more stringent Common Core standards caused a dip in test scores for students across the nation. All of these students will be at risk of being held back this year unless they meet one of a handful of exemptions included in the law or demonstrate proficiency on an alternative assessment or “portfolio”.

Students who thrive throughout the year but have one bad day during the exam will be held back. Eight and nine year olds will face the unimaginable pressure of taking a test knowing that the result of a single examination will determine whether or not they advance to fourth grade with their classmates. Research clearly indicates that those children who are retained will face an uphill battle for the rest of their educational careers with a much higher likelihood of dropping out prior to graduation.

The Read to Achieve law contains a provision that students may avoid retention by demonstrating proficiency on a “portfolio.” In educational circles a portfolio generally refers to a collection of a student’s best work from throughout the year tied to specific standards. However, the portfolio that has been developed in North Carolina is actually nothing more than a series of 36 half hour standardized tests. Some districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake plan to have all third graders take the series of portfolio tests in an attempt to limit the number of students who will be retained.

The portfolio, as initially conceived in the law, showed promise as a means to wean the state off its overreliance on standardized testing. Unfortunately, the portfolio that has been created dramatically increases the amount of testing that the state’s third graders must face. The implementation of the Read to Achieve program has effectively turned the purpose of the program on its head by administering even more tests that significantly detract from the time students and teachers have available to improve vital reading skills by the end of third grade.

Third graders who do not demonstrate proficiency on the state assessment or the portfolio tests will be given one final life preserver in the form of summer reading camps that will run three hours a day for six weeks. At the end of that period, children will be tested again and those who do not pass will be retained. The summer reading camps will be funded by the state, but serious questions exist concerning whether funds that have been allocated for the program are adequate for districts to open and operate schools and classrooms, hire teachers, provide materials, and arrange for busing across the state’s 115 school districts. It is also unclear what will happen next year to students who are held back in reading but promoted in all of the other subjects.

At a recent legislative hearing, policymakers and school administrators indicated that they would explore altering and /or slowing down the implementation of the Read to Achieve program so that it is not working against the program’s original goal of helping children to read on grade level by the end of third grade. Let’s hope they follow through. If they don’t, children will receive less instruction in reading and school districts across the state will face chaos as tens of thousands of third graders become eligible to be held back at the end of the school year.

Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.