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School Districts Want Flexibility With Third Grade Reading Law

The North Carolina Board of Education will vote today on a measure that could ease some of the testing going on under the new third grade reading law. That law requires third-graders not reading at grade level by the end of the year to go to summer reading camps. So far, it’s been rough. Teachers, even lawmakers who voted for the law, admit it needs tweaking. 

State Board of Education meetings are usually pretty staid. But yesterday’s board meeting was an exception.

“I’ll tell you the exasperation level is off the charts. It’s off the charts,” said Superintendent of Mooresville Graded Schools Mark Edwards, an advisor to the board

The source of a lot of that exasperation is what’s called a ‘reading portfolio.’ It’s a series of 36 tests spread out over several months. Each test takes about 15 minutes to complete. 

The idea is most kids will be judged on their year-end tests. The reading portfolios are designed only for those students who may fail that year-end test because their worry gets the best of them. But districts are giving them to most students who are behind. That’s more than half of third-graders in the state. 

Union County Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis came to observe the meeting. She says teachers have little choice.   

“We want children to have every option and every chance they can have.... Then, you have the parents who may say, ‘Why didn’t you do that for my child? My child could do that.’ You’re east of the devil and west of the deep,” said Ellis.   

The proposal before the board would allow schools to use tests that kids already take during the year to measure whether they are at grade-level and can go on to fourth grade or must go to a summer reading camp. Ellis says that way districts won’t feel so much pressure to subject kids to reading portfolios.  

Edwards told the board the way it is now is unacceptable.

“I have to tell you when we talked to Senator Berger he said, ‘This is not what we intendend.’ But it has translated now to this huge train wreck. And people all over the state are upset about it. So I hope there’s some sense to, ‘Let’s bring some relief to it, make it reasonable, responsible,’” said Edwards. 

One way to do that, said State Superintendent June Atkinson, is to stop administering the reading portfolio tests to so many students. But she said, if districts choose to give those tests, they have to give all 36 of them. After all, that’s what state law requires. 

“Since I took an oath in January 2012 to uphold the laws of North Carolina, while I believe that that should be changed, it has been our responsibility to carry that law forward,” said Atkinson.    

Many districts also want flexibility around the summer reading camps. By law, they must run three hours a day for six weeks.  But that’s a tough schedule for working parents. 

Board member Rebecca Taylor urged the board to do what it can to make sure the law achieves what it sets out to do, that is, to get all third-graders reading up to snuff. 

“I didn’t write this. You didn’t write this. Obviously superintendents and teachers didn’t write this. So we all need to work together to come up with how to implement this,” said Taylor.    

The board is expected to vote this morning on whether to allow districts to use the alternate tests. Any other changes will be up to state lawmakers. They don’t meet until May. 

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.