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Almost 35,000 NC third graders were held back under Read to Achieve rules, state says

Black Child Development Institute-Charlotte

Almost one-third of last year's North Carolina third graders were held back this year because they failed 2021 reading exams, according to a report presented to the state Board of Education on Wednesday.

The devastating impact of pandemic-driven disruptions in North Carolina and across the country has already been well documented. Wednesday's report spotlighted how that is playing out under the state's Read to Achieve program, designed to get all children reading well by the end of third grade. That's done partly by discouraging "social promotion."

The General Assembly approved the program in 2012. Despite tens of millions of dollars spent to help K-3 students read better, scores have remained flat and even seen slight declines. The pandemic brought a steep drop as students moved in and out of remote and hybrid learning.

According to the latest report, almost 113,000 third graders took the reading test last year, and 56% fell short of the grade-level score needed for promotion to fourth grade.

Summer school helped some

Read To Achieve allows other ways to clear the bar, such as passing an alternative test or taking part in summer reading programs. The report says about 37,400 third graders qualified for priority admission to free summer school based on low scores, but only about 17,300 attended.

Almost 35,000 students, or 31% of all third graders, were retained, the report says. That could mean repeating third grade, being placed in a combined third-fourth grade class or even being assigned to fourth grade with a "retained" label.

Based on reading progress, students can be promoted midyear or advance into fifth grade next year.

"It goes without saying: Our earliest learners took a hard hit during this pandemic," said Amy Rhyne, the state's Read to Achieve director. "And now more than ever, we have to ensure there’s a solid plan in place to support the gaps that have been created during this time. It’s not easy work. We recognize the difficulty for our principals, our teachers and the adults."

Tough work for educators

Part of the recently-revised Read to Achieve plan calls for all North Carolina K-3 teachers to be retrained in a "science of reading" program called LETRS. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus and Anson county schools are among the group taking part in the training this school year.

Superintendent Catherine Truitt noted that plans to focus on new teaching strategies were already in the words before the pandemic. But she acknowledged it's a lot of work for educators who are still grappling with CoVID-19 safety.

"Third-grade reading is the No. 1 academic predictor of post-secondary success, and this cannot continue," Truitt said. "We must change this trajectory and we have to use science and data to do it."

Eugenia Floyd, a teacher adviser to the state board, noted that some districts are having trouble finding substitutes to cover classrooms while teachers are in LETRS training.

Board member Wendell Hall said the biggest message he took away from the report is the importance of in-person learning.

"Nothing replaces a qualified teacher face to face with a group of students on a daily basis if we ever want to impact positive achievement for our kids," he said.

Reading camps and personal plans

The Department of Public Instruction continues to work on plans to improve the Read to Achieve program. Those plans include requiring school districts to create plans for intervening when students fall behind and mandating that those students have individual improvement plans.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.