It’s Friday, and Carla Tavares, a third grade teacher at Millbrook Elementary School in Wake County, is tired of testing her students.
And Tavares’ students are tired of taking tests.
“Which test is this?” a sullen third grader asked Tavares, holding a packet in his hand that contained a four-page reading passage and several questions to answer.
The student was trying to make sure he was on track to take all the tests required of him for that week, thanks to the new Read to Achieve law. This spring, he usually has to take three tests a week, but thanks to the recent snow days for all and unexpected absences for some, there are students in Tavares’ class who have had to take as many as seven tests this week alone.
“That’s the right one,” said Tavares. “Please go sit down and take the test.”
The Read to Achieve law, enacted in 2012 as part of Sen. Phil Berger’s Excellent Public Schools Act, was designed to ensure that all students are reading at or above grade level by the end of the third grade. If a student fails to achieve that benchmark, then the law requires that student to be held back from advancing to the fourth grade.
While that may sound fairly straightforward and a laudable goal, the implementation of this new rule has been anything but simple—and it comes with unintended consequences.
How the law works
There are several ways a third grader can demonstrate reading proficiency, according to the law. She can either score proficient on the Beginning of Grade (BOG) test, which is taken at the start of third grade; score proficient on the End of Grade (EOG) test, taken at the end of third grade; successfully complete a portfolio of reading assessments; retake the EOG test once if she fails it the first time; or successfully pass an authorized alternative test.
While not required by the law, many school districts were reluctant to hinge the possibility of a third grader moving on to the fourth grade on his or her performance on a single test, especially considering that North Carolina just adopted more rigorous standards and more difficult assessments based on those standards—meaning that even more students are likely to fail End of Grade tests than in years past.
So districts like Charlotte-Mecklenberg and Wake decided to begin administering portfolio assessments in the spring semester to all third graders who hadn’t already scored proficient in reading on their BOGs.
With portfolio assessments, students must demonstrate mastery of the state’s 12 reading standards by successfully passing three tests of reading comprehension for each standard. That means students must pass 36 reading tests that take 30 minutes each to complete during the spring semester, in addition to other formative and summative assessments that already take place during the school year.
“At least two of these kids are actually reading on grade level,” said Tavares, who is administering portfolio assessments to about half of the kids in her class – the other half have already demonstrated proficiency. “But they’re not good test takers. They’re stressed out. They’re distracted. They’re exhausted.”
“Some of my students are so tired of these exams, they aren’t even reading the passages anymore. They’re just circling answers and immediately handing the tests back to me,” she said.
For students who don’t end up successfully passing the portfolio assessments or any of the other ways to demonstrate reading proficiency, they’ll then be expected to attend six-week summer reading camps as a last-ditch attempt to make it into the fourth grade.
But as summer approaches, teachers are still in the dark about how these camps will work.
“You have to apply to work these summer camps, just like you have to apply to work for summer school. But I haven’t heard anything yet about that process,” said Tavares. “And Millbrook runs summer school with nearby Brentwood Elementary. If, say, half of Millbrook’s students don’t become proficient by the end of the year, and half at Brentwood don’t pass either, how will we run these summer camps along with summer school? It seems like the logistics haven’t really been thought out,” she added.
Bruce Boyles, superintendent for Cleveland County schools, said in a letter to the State Board of Education that, “the length of the [summer] camp creates issues for students, families and schools. Not only will this camp impact family plans and activities, teachers and schools will be negatively impacted in terms of professional development opportunities and maintenance repairs and upgrades at the school.”
If a parent chooses not to send her child to summer camp, that student must repeat the third grade. But for those students who do attend summer camps but don’t successfully pass, they will be placed into a hybrid third/fourth grade classroom in the fall, in which classroom instruction will be designed to meet fourth grade standards but non-proficient readers will continue to receive remediation.
Realizing that many districts felt forced to subject their students to an incredible amount of testing in the hope of passing a greater percentage of third graders on to the fourth grade, the State Board of Education moved in February to accept proposals from local school districts for alternative assessments that are valid and reliably demonstrate a student’s proficiency in reading, as required by the Read to Achieve law.
Sixty-four districts have put forward proposals for local alternative assessments to the State Board of Education. Many districts asked to use assessments they have already been relying on to identify proficient readers, such as the state-approved mClass Reading 3D Text Reading and Comprehension Assessment test.
Cabarrus County’s proposal explained how mClass would be an appropriate way to identify proficient readers.
“This assessment is administered to all students in Cabarrus County and adequately measures the meaning students derive from texts, demonstrating their capacity to apply the third grade standards measured by the End of Grade assessments,” said Barry Shepherd, Superintendent of Cabarrus County Schools.
Other measures of reading proficiency that are already in place in North Carolina classrooms and were submitted as alternative assessments to meet the Read to Achieve requirements include the Discovery Education Reading/Language arts assessment, Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments, and ClassScape, among many others.
Local school boards must also sign off on their district’s proposals, guaranteeing the validity of the tests.
Earlier intervention needed
Read to Achieve’s champion, Senator Phil Berger, recently explained in a statement his logic for the law.
“One out of every three North Carolina fourth graders is reading below the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and research shows children who leave third grade unable to read are on a path to academic failure and life-long economic hardship,” said Berger.
Tavares agrees reading is critical to a child’s success, but feels earlier intervention than the third grade is necessary.
“Why are we starting in the third grade? We have to start earlier – we need interventions and supports in kindergarten, first and second grades. Once you get to third grade, it’s already too late. You’re in trouble,” explained Tavares. “And the achievement gap only grows when you hold students back.”
Instead of providing resources for teachers to help students read better, Tavares said, the law instead requires teachers to devote precious instructional time toward testing.
“I end up starting my instructional day with a Read to Achieve test,” said Tavares. “I don’t want to start the day with a test, but there’s not enough time.”
Tavares said that between all of the tests she must administer, there’s very little time left in the day for instruction and practice so that students can actually get better at taking the reading assessments – or just bet better at reading, period.
“Instead of punishing kids with tests, why not give me an extra set of hands, some more training, and an intervention program to get this done? I don’t need 36 tests to tell me who is reading on grade level and who isn’t. I already know who those students are,” said Tavares.
“And 36 tests won’t make them better readers. It will just make them hate reading.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]