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Superintendent gives NC lawmakers dramatic but flawed data on early reading gains

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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt answers a question at Monday's meeting of the House committee on the future of education.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt presented North Carolina lawmakers Monday with what appeared to be new evidence of dramatic reading gains. A few hours later, the state corrected that data.

Truitt and three members of her staff met Monday with the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina's Future. They talked about ways the Department of Public Instruction plans to track the results of education initiatives, working with such partners as Harvard University, the North Carolina Collaboratory and SAS analytics.

Truitt said the influx of about $6 billion in federal COVID-19 aid to schools made the mission vital.

"More than ever we need for someone to take the lead in a statewide way over what works and what doesn’t work  in education," she said.

Truitt told lawmakers the state has invested more than $60 million, split about evenly between state and federal money, in science of reading training for elementary school teachers, known as LETRS. It's the latest twist in the state's Read To Achieve program, which has produced little measurable progress despite years of spending.

Dramatic three-year jump?

Truitt presented a slide that purported to show dramatic increases in end-of-year reading scores for kindergarteners and first-graders between 2019 and 2022.

"We are really excited to share with you for the first time that preliminary end-of-year data for kindergarten and first-graders show that North Carolina is moving quicker than the rest of the nation in its early literacy recovery," she said.

According to her chart, North Carolina’s kindergarteners went from 27% proficient at the end of the 2018-19 school year to 67% proficient at the end of last year. Nationwide, the proficiency rate rose from 36% to 60%, she said. First-grade results were similar, if less dramatic.

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North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
This incorrect chart was presented to a House panel, and corrected afterward when WFAE asked questions.

Neither Truitt nor the chart cited the source of the numbers. K-2 students don't take state reading exams. The state contracts with Amplify, a national curriculum and testing company, to provide assessments for those students.

No explanation was given for why there would have been such a dramatic jump in proficiency between the kindergarteners who finished their school year in 2019 and those who finished in 2022. Nor did legislators ask.

"I think you deserve a good thank-you for that, but also, have a piece of cake and let’s keep  pushing on, right?" Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County, the committee's chair, said to Truitt.

"I'll take it," she replied, laughing.

Change was mislabeled

WFAE asked the Department of Public Instruction to provide the source of the data and explain any changes that might account for the state and national bump. Communications Chief Blair Rhodes initially said the 2019 data came from DPI and the 2022 preliminary data was from Amplify.

She then said the chart was wrong and would be corrected. The new chart said the numbers actually represent the change between the beginning of the 2021-22 school year and the end of the year. In other words, 27% of North Carolina's kindergarteners started the year reading at the expected level for kindergarteners and 67% hit the mark by the end of the year, a 40-point gain.

That compares with a 24-point national gain, which apparently includes all kindergarteners taking the Amplify assessments.

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North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
This corrected chart on North Carolina reading proficiency was provided to WFAE after the House panel meeting.

There was nothing to say how that compares with gains in previous years. In 2019 North Carolina switched vendors, leading to legal battles between Istation, which got the contract in 2019, and Amplify, which had it for six years before that. In 2020-21 the state let districts choose from a list of vendors, and the pandemic then disrupted testing.

Nor is it clear how much LETRS training influenced the 2022 results. The full training takes 160 hours spread over two years, and the first batch of districts launched that process last fall. Some districts have not begun LETRS training.

Rhoades said a final version of the beginning- and end-of-year Amplify test results will be presented later this month, after DPI reviews and verifies it.

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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.