© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

NC midyear reading data shows gains, but third-grade goals remain elusive

 Students reading at Mint Hill Elementary.
Ann Doss Helms
Students reading at Mint Hill Elementary.

Amid a push to revamp how North Carolina’s public schools teach reading, state officials touted signs of progress Wednesday while warning not to expect dramatic change.

The Department of Public Instruction presented data from midyear reading assessments given in grades K-3 to the state Board of Education. Tests given through a program called Amplify show North Carolina’s K-2 students outperforming their counterparts across the country.

But the gains level off in grade three, with about half of students in both groups rated on track for core reading skills. Fifty-two percent of North Carolina’s third-graders were rated on track at the end of the first semester, compared with 50% nationally and 49% of last year’s third-graders.

North Carolina has tried for years, with little success, to get more third-graders reading proficiently before they advance to grade four. The latest push through the state’s Read To Achieve program involves massive retraining of elementary school teachers to help them teach the basic steps of reading.

The Amplify tests gauge only basic skills, while the state’s End of Grade reading exams require students to apply those skills, state Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the board. So it’s tough to predict the results of spring testing.

“Given the growth that we’re seeing, we are anticipating that our third-graders are going to do better than they have in the past,” she said. “But we still have to contend with the fact that these third-graders missed almost a year and a half of school when they were just entering school.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders discussed a similar pattern when they reviewed midyear reading data last week. Current third-graders were in kindergarten when schools closed because of COVID-19 in spring 2020, and most saw significant disruption throughout first grade. Truitt and CMS Interim Superintendent Crystal Hill both say next year’s third-grade scores should be stronger.

A crucial milestone

Success in third-grade reading is widely viewed as essential to future success, as more and more classwork relies on reading. North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program, launched in 2012, provides summer programs for students who fall short on third-grade reading exams and restricts promotion to fourth grade until children master those skills.

Despite the efforts, bolstered by the investment of more than $200 million in state money, scores were low and stagnant even before the pandemic. In 2019, 57% of North Carolina third-graders earned proficient scores. In 2021, when testing resumed after school closures, that fell to 34%. The 2022 scores saw a partial recovery, with 46% proficiency.

The pandemic also exacerbated long-standing racial disparities. Last year’s reading pass rates for North Carolina third-graders were 71% for Asian students, 60% for whites, 33% for Hispanics and 31% for Blacks.

This year’s midyear assessments for K-3 students in North Carolina show that pattern continuing, with 79% of Asian students considered on track, compared with 63% of white students, 45% of Black students and 42% of Hispanic students. North Carolina’s Hispanic students were slightly below the national average, while the other groups were above averages for their national counterparts.

Banking on LETRS

Two years ago state legislators approved almost $50 million to put all elementary and prekindergarten teachers through a program called LETRS, for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. Training takes 160 hours over two years, with teachers learning to break down reading into phonics, decoding and other steps collectively known as the science of reading.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, early learning director Amy Rhyne said only a handful of small districts that piloted the training, including Catawba and Newton-Conover schools, have finished training all teachers.

“We would love for those proficiencies to be higher and we are just beginning and we have great things ahead,” Rhyne said.

Truitt said this year’s third-graders not only faced big pandemic setbacks, but many were taught with ineffective reading strategies.

“And so teachers are having to do correcting with those students,” she said. “So overall we are projecting that our students will do better, but we think that our second-graders this year will do even better than the third-graders this year.”

Truitt said she’s also hearing from middle school teachers who struggle to help sixth-graders who arrive without basic reading skills. She said her department is working on a plan to provide LETRS training for middle school teachers who need help teaching those skills.

Sign up for our Education Newsletter

Select Your Email Format

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.