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Latest reading scores leave room for debate on NC’s investment in science of reading

A Huntersville Elementary student works on a reading lesson.
Ann Doss Helms
A Huntersville Elementary student works on a reading lesson.

Three years ago, big fourth-grade reading gains in Mississippi helped inspire North Carolina to invest $50 million in a program designed to help educators do better at teaching children to read.

Now a new set of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are in. And experts continue to debate whether Mississippi’s performance offers hope or a warning for North Carolina.

The NAEP is sometimes called "The Nation’s Report Card". It's designed to provide data on reading and math performance that’s consistent across state lines and over time. Experts generally caution against using the scores to promote or discredit specific programs.

But Mississippi’s reading gains in 2019, which came after five years of retraining teachers using a science of reading program called LETRS, inspired some North Carolina leaders who were frustrated by stagnant performance and lingering racial disparities.

“One state has become a model for changing this paradigm: Mississippi,” National Gypsum CEO Tom Nelson said at a 2021 news conference supporting North Carolina’s science of reading bill.

The state’s current two-year budget earmarked $50 million to put all elementary school teachers through LETRS, which is short for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.

But here’s the thing: While Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading growth in 2019 did stand out, it merely moved the state from below average into the middle of the pack, along with North Carolina.

State averages can sometimes be driven by demographic differences. On same-group comparisons, North Carolina’s white fourth-graders outperformed Mississippi’s, while Mississippi’s Hispanic and low-income kids edged out North Carolina. Proficiency for Black students was similar in both states.

A win or a tie?

The 2021 national exams were delayed by the pandemic. When a new batch of scores from 2022 was released recently, North Carolina saw a significant decline in fourth-grade reading, while Mississippi did not.

“They didn’t go down. They didn’t go up. And given everything that happened with the pandemic, that’s a win,” said Munro Richardson, executive director of Read Charlotte, a community reading initiative.

Part of his job is to scour reading data to identify programs that can boost performance in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He says Mississippi has important lessons for North Carolina and CMS, and LETRS training is part of the answer.

LETRS is sometimes described as a phonics program, but it encompasses a wider range of tactics to help children learn to read. Those tactics include emphasizing fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Mississippi couples that training with an infusion of literacy coaches who are assigned to low-scoring schools to make sure teachers know how to turn training into action.

And, Richardson says, “there is one other part of the Mississippi story that I think people don’t fully appreciate: They got K-1 right.”

That is, the big jump in fourth-grade scores didn’t come until the state’s reading program had been in place for five years, capturing this year’s test-takers when they started school. Both North Carolina and CMS are already seeing promising signs of reading growth with the youngest students, Richardson says.

“I have way more optimism about what’s possible in our community than I ever have before,” he said.

Better learning or higher scores?

But even with North Carolina’s regression, its fourth-grade reading proficiency levels are still essentially the same as those in Mississippi and 35 other states. Thirty-two percent of fourth-graders in North Carolina and 31% in Mississippi hit proficiency. Black, Hispanic and low-income students in both states continue to trail counterparts who are white or not economically disadvantaged.

“Mississippi, in the fourth grade in the last two tests, kind of sat in this huge lump of middle,” said Paul Thomas, a Furman University education professor who studies reading instruction. He’s a skeptic of standardized testing, and of the national push to embrace the science of reading programs as the solution to America’s reading crisis.

For starters, he says the tendency to cry “reading crisis” is overblown.

“There’s not a single decade, year or even day in the last 80 years that we said reading achievement was OK,” Thomas said.

And he says policymakers and product vendors across the country tend to oversimplify research to promote their solutions

“Mississippi has been steadily raising their fourth-grade reading score for almost three decades now,” Thomas said. “That’s not a trivial thing and it’s a perfectly good thing to celebrate.”

He says the error is drawing simple conclusions from that long-term trend, or from the sharp improvement of 2019, with an array of policies and programs that have been tried over the years.

Educators often talk about the importance of learning to read by third grade so students can read to learn after that. Thomas says instruction in phonics and other reading basics can boost early performance without delivering later gains.

For example, Mississippi’s eighth-graders fell significantly below the national average on reading, with only 22% proficient.

“I call it a mirage, because it disappears by eighth grade,” Thomas said. “In other words it isn’t an increase in learning, it’s an increase in the test scores.”

North Carolina’s eighth-graders, with 26% reading proficiency, were at the bottom of the range and considered similar to the national average.

Thomas says giving up on silver bullet solutions is not the same as giving up on better reading and racial equity. He calls for making sure weak readers have smaller classes and experienced teachers, and for society to do more to combat poverty.

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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.