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More Scrutiny On This Year's Third Graders In NC

Courtney Mason in her classroom at Piney Grove Elementary.
Lisa Worf
Courtney Mason in her classroom at Piney Grove Elementary.

North Carolina third-graders have a big year ahead of them. This is the first year by law third-graders will be held back, if they aren’t reading at grade level.  But it’s not so cut and dry. 

WFAE’s education reporter Lisa Miller joins me now to explain how this will actually work:

KEVIN KNIESTEDT: So, Lisa, how does the state determine whether kids are reading at grade level? 

LISA MILLER: That’s judged by a standardized test called the EOG or end-of-grade test.  If kids score below a three, that means they’re struggling with reading.  And by this measure a third of kids in 2012 were not reading at grade level.  The tests have since changed.  They’ve gotten harder, so even fewer kids are expected to pass.  But it’s hard to tell just how many because the state board of education has to determine what qualifies as a passing score.  The board’s going to do that this week.  It could well shake out that last year only 50 percent of third graders made the grade. 

KK:  That’s a lot of students to hold back.  Is that going to happen?

LM: No, it’s not.  But reading the legislation, hearing lawmakers say it will end social promotion, I thought we’d be seeing an awful lot of third-graders.  But then I spoke with Tammy Howard, who’s in charge of testing for the state.  This is what she said:

HOWARD: It does seem rather daunting, but the most important thing to remember is, it is a process from the administration of end of grade to the summer camps.  There’s several steps in between those two points with the intention that the students who go to the summer camps are the students who most seriously need that intervention.

LM: So, here’s the steps she’s talking about.  The kids who score below a three can take that test again before the school year ends.  They can even take a modified test that sprinkles the questions throughout the text right next to the section it’s asking about, instead of having them all grouped at the end.  Or a student can complete what’s called a reading portfolio.  Kids will have to show they can master selections picked out by the state.  

KK: Okay, so that’s going to weed out some kids. 

LM: It will.  Those kids who still can’t pass have to go to a summer reading camp.  This is at least six weeks long, four or five days a week.  And it will include at least 3 hours of reading help a day.  If they pass at the end of that, then they’re full-fledged fourth graders. 

KK: And if they don’t?

LM: They actually still go on to fourth grade, but they get what’s called a third grade retention label. 

KK: What does that mean? It sounds like a scarlet letter.   

LM: No, it’s not that.  It means they have to have 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction every day.  But that’s not such a big change.  Carolyn Guthrie oversees the implementation of this legislation for the state.  Here’s what she says: 

GUTHRIE: Schools today right now are providing 90 minutes of English Language Arts block.  This 90 minutes of uninterrupted instruction would be like a normal English Language Arts block that a teacher would have for her class of children.  The way this law differs a little bit, is it says this 90 minutes has to be uninterrupted. 

LM: So right now that block could be split up before and after lunch.  Next year, schools won’t be able to do that, at least in classes that have kids with this retention label. 

KK: So, will any third graders actually be held back under this new legislation? 

LM: Only those struggling readers who don’t go to summer reading camps.  Those are the only ones who will go back to a third grade classroom.  As for those 4th graders with a 3rd grade label, at the end of the year, it’s the principal who decides whether they’re ready to move on to fifth grade.

KK: How many students does the state expect will go to summer reading camps or get this third grade label?

LM: Guthrie says she has no idea, since it’s so new.  But you have to budget for this stuff.  So, yes, the school’s finance department has an estimate.  The state has set aside money for about 33,000 students to go to the reading camps this summer.  That’s nearly a third of third-graders.  It gets a little murky though when you talk about the number who will either be held back in 3rd grade or get that 3rd grade retention label.

KK: So how are schools preparing for this? 

LM: Most of this preparation is at the state level.  But the districts set the camps up and run them.  I spoke with Jason Vanheukelum, the Deputy Superintendent of Cabarrus County Schools.  The state will pay the tab, but not necessarily all of it.  That’s got him worried.   

VANHEUKELUM: We’re very anxious to find out how much money is going to be allocated from the state.  I know they have set aside money in the budget for that.  But to what extent will Cabarrus County Schools have to pick up pieces of that tab to run an effective camp to do what the law is intending. 

LM: And there’s the possibility there could be a lot more students in those camps than the state budgeted for too.  So there are still a lot of unknowns at this point.

KK: Thanks, Lisa.

LM: Thank you, Kevin.

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.