Politics-driven Read to Achieve a path to failure for NC

Raleigh News & Observer, April 30, 2014

By Janna Siegel Robertson and Pamela Grundy 

Across North Carolina, this has been the worst third-grade year in memory for teachers, students and families. The General Assembly’s requirement that third-graders must pass the End of Grade reading exam in order to be promoted has drained countless third-grade classes of the excitement that comes with reading and learning and turned the last months of third grade into a slog of worksheets, test practice and stress.

At the end of the school year, the Read to Achieve legislation will force many North Carolina third-graders to repeat the grade, even though retention is enormously expensive and has been shown to harm students more often than it helps them.

The legislators who voted for this measure and the families enmeshed in its consequences should take heed. RTA is a perfect example of the problems that ensue when elected officials enact educational policies that fail to take into account the specific challenges that struggling students face, the solutions that have well-established track records and the professional judgment of educators who know children as individuals, rather than simply as test scores.

For the well-being of North Carolina’s children, we need to demand that our representatives either scrap or profoundly overhaul Read to Achieve. In addition, to avoid such negative consequences in the future, both legislators and residents need to pay far closer attention to education legislation before it is enacted.

Few question the significance of third-grade reading. Prominent education research organizations, most notably the Annie E. Casey Foundation, have made it clear that a child’s third-grade reading level is a useful predictor of later school achievement, graduation and adult success.

The challenge becomes how to help students reach proficiency.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation linked most of the reading problems it identified to the limited opportunities available to low-income children at early ages. It recommended supporting low-income parents, increasing access to high quality programs from birth to age 8 and addressing the challenges of chronic absenteeism and summer learning loss.

North Carolina’s legislative leaders, in contrast, pushed through an underfunded mandate with punitive consequences. They required that the vast majority of North Carolina’s third-graders pass the reading EOG or be retained (a handful of exceptions were allowed). They imposed these new requirements at the same time they reduced prekindergarten opportunities, eliminated class size caps and cut the ranks of teachers and teacher assistants. The only funding attached to the proposal was a small per-student fund to pay part of the cost of summer school for third-graders who did not pass the test.

The mandated solution – retention – flies in the face of decades of research that indicate that retention often sets a child on a path to dropping out of school. In addition, retention lacks a long-term track record of improving reading proficiency. In Florida – often touted as a model for North Carolina – third-graders retained under a similar program showed initial reading gains over promoted peers. Those gains, however, faded by the time students reached seventh grade.

Read to Achieve thus 1: fails to address the problem at its source; 2: imposes a solution that is enormously expensive; 3: has clearly documented negative consequences and has produced no long-term track record as an effective reading intervention; 4. treats students as test scores, rather than individuals; 5: further raises the stakes on standardized tests, which encourages teaching to the test at the expense of other, often more valuable learning activities; 6: reduces many third-graders’ interest in school and love of learning; and 7: places additional burdens on North Carolina teachers, who are already contending with low pay, larger classes, less support, rising expectations and shrinking resources.

These problems have emerged because Read to Achieve is a political rather than educational program. It is a superficial “high standards” measure that produces headlines but diverts money and attention from real solutions. It did not emerge from consultation with North Carolina educators, families and education experts. Instead, legislative leaders copied it from a Florida program that has been heavily promoted by former Florida governor and potential presidential candidate Jeb Bush, as well as by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

If our legislators genuinely want to improve public education in North Carolina, they can do far better than following the lead of those who copy problematic policies from states whose students perform less well overall than North Carolina students. As the General Assembly reconvenes, voters need to let them know that we plan to hold them to legitimate higher standards, ones that draw on practices with strong evidence of effectiveness, respect the judgment of parents and educators and support our children as precious individuals.

Janna Siegel Robertson is professor of education at UNC-Wilmington, and co-coordinator of the UNCW Dropout Prevention Coalition. Pamela Grundy is co-chair of the Charlotte-based advocacy group MecklenburgACTS.org.