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Reading struggles continue for kids across NC — not just at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools


Last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools presented a bleak update on third-grade reading skills, showing that this year's students were even less likely than last year's to be on track for success.

That posed a bigger question: Is the problem unique to CMS? Or does the report foreshadow bad news for other districts across North Carolina when children take state exams later this spring?

Amy Rhyne, director of the Office of Early Learning in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says there's nothing directly comparable to the CMS report, which was created to monitor the district's internal goals. All North Carolina students take mid-year reading tests designed to gauge progress, but there's no statewide posting of results like there is at year's end.

But she says the challenge Superintendent Earnest Winston and CMS board members remarked on is true: This year's third-graders lost part of their first grade year and went through major disruption during second grade, so it’s not easy for them to jump into third-grade material and catch up. And unfortunately, she says schools across the state are also seeing that with this year’s second-graders.

"The pandemic really hit them even harder because they missed those foundational skills and the content continues to get harder," Rhyne said.

Foundational skills — or decoding skills, as the CMS report dubbed them — involve the ability to recognize letters and sound out how they form words. Without that, a child can't read a third-grade story. And proficient reading by the end of third grade is widely viewed as a predictor of success in all subjects.

In-person time matters

Last week, Winston acknowledged that the district's decision to stay in remote classes longer than nearby districts "had an academic consequence."

That echoes findings of an ongoing North Carolina learning loss study that's based on projected and actual results for 2021. WFAE found the same thing when comparing changes in scores for CMS and nearby districts that brought kids back to classrooms sooner.

Rhyne says there's no new analysis of that question based on mid-year results. But she said that rings true with what she's seeing and hearing.

"For those foundational skills for our youngest children, it appears that ... they tend to do much better in person than they do when they’re working remote (and) trying to learn those foundational skills," Rhyne said.

But all schools lost in-person time during the past two years. Even when in-person classes resumed, many students and teachers were absent when they fell ill or had to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19.

What state numbers show so far

Last year, 45% of North Carolina third-graders and 40% of third-graders in CMS passed the end-of-grade reading exam. That was down from 57% statewide and in CMS in 2019, before the pandemic.

In a report to the state Board of Education earlier this month, Rhyne said mid-year tests show 49% of third-graders are on track to pass this year.

The CMS report used a different benchmark, looking at the percent who were on track to make a "college and career ready" score in third-grade reading. Last year 34% of North Carolina students and 29.5% of CMS students hit that mark.

CMS also broke out results by race, reporting that 13% of all third-graders and fewer than 10% of those who are Black or Hispanic are on track. The report showed performance is down for all races compared with last year's third-graders at mid-year.

The state has not broken out racial groups and is not doing a comparison with last year's mid-year results. Rhyne says that's because last year districts could choose from five vendors for mid-year exams.

Not a new struggle

Even before the pandemic, North Carolina struggled to get third-graders reading well enough to perform well in higher grades. Ten years ago, there was so much concern about low third-grade reading scores that the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Read To Achieve act. Among other things, it created summer reading camps for third-graders who didn’t score at grade level and made it harder for them to advance to fourth grade.

But even after the state spent more than $200 million on the effort, there wasn’t much progress. And the disruption from COVID-19 set everyone back.

All North Carolina elementary school teachers are going through extensive science-of-reading training, known as LETRS, which is designed to help them teach basic reading skills to young children.

CMS has introduced a new reading curriculum, known as EL. And last week, Winston said he expects elementary schools to find an extra 30 minutes a day to help children build reading skills, with instruction tailored to their specific needs.

All of those strategies have gotten mixed reviews from teachers, and none can be expected to produce quick, dramatic results. So even with COVID-19 numbers going down and classes back to in-person learning, the academic aftermath of the pandemic isn't likely to fade soon.

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Corrected: March 29, 2022 at 9:32 AM EDT
Revised to correct Amy Rhyne's title.
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.