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NC’s Third-Grade Reading Law From The Classroom

Third graders in North Carolina are on a deadline. They have just a few weeks to prove to the state their reading is up to snuff. Otherwise, they’ll be headed to summer reading camps. There’s a lot to do: lessons to learn, passages to read, and tests to take. It’s all part of the new third-grade reading law. 

This is a complicated law to translate to the classroom. So let’s start with an expert.

Credit Lisa Miller
Karla Romero knows the ins-and-outs of the third-grade reading law.

“I love reading, but I need help with it,” says Karla Romero, a third grader at Park View Elementary in Mooresville. 

“If I don’t pass the test that I took, then I go to summer camp and, then, if I don’t pass it, I’ll go to MIS, but I’ll be labeled as a third grader.”

MIS is Mooresville Intermediate School where Romero and her classmates are headed for fourth grade next year, whether they pass the end-of-year reading test or not. They’ve taken a lot of reading tests this year to compile what state law calls a portfolio.

Their teacher Andrea White asks them to think of these tests as a safety net. If they fail the end-of-year test and do well enough on these smaller tests, they still become full-fledged fourth graders. 

“I tell them the goal on the passages is four out of five cause it’s going to help you get to fourth grade,” says White. “There’s a fine line between you don’t want to scare them. You don’t want to make them more anxious than the tests already make them.”

But you want to make sure they take them seriously. 

“Read carefully. Go back and underline where you find your answers. Make your best answer choice,” White tells her class.   

She passes out a one-and-a-half page story about a girl who plays on a boys’ flag-football team. It comes with five questions. It’s a practice test. They take the real portfolio tests twice a week. 

“Remember, we’re focusing on context clues, so use the stuff before and after the phrases or the words that your question is all about,” she reminds them.   

Romero and her classmates have big, blue cardboard screens on their desks that keep their eyes on their own tests. They have to figure out what phrases like “shook on it” or “don’t buy that” mean based on the story’s context. Most of these kids will take at least 36 tests like these throughout the spring semester. 

“We are losing minimum an hour and a half a week of instruction,” says White.  “Some kids finish them quickly, other kids take their time and it could be 20, 30 minutes before they’re finished.” 

“It’s become frustrating for teachers, frustrating for students, frustrating for parents,” says Carolyn Guthrie with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. 

Her job is to make sure teachers across the state know how to translate this law to the classroom. These reading portfolios have caused the most angst.  She’s heard many districts run almost all their students through them. She says that was never the intent, but she can’t blame districts. 

“I know they are trying to be able to give all of the students every opportunity possible to show proficiency,” says Guthrie.    

There’s a lot of confusion statewide about the new law. Districts, even individual schools, are handling it differently. For example, kids in some schools miss science and social studies to focus on reading.

Other schools have had to re-organize classrooms so kids could work in small groups. Teachers in Mooresville schools are used to that arrangement. Two-thirds of Michelle Robbins’s class just completed a reading portfolio test. 

Credit Lisa Miller
Third-grade teachers Andrea White (left) and Michelle Robbins (right) worry the new law involves too much testing.

“I score them and then I’ll give them back to them, so they can see them. We’re not allowed to go over them with them,” explains Robbins.   

But actually they are. The state changed that after hearing from teachers who wanted their students not to just take the tests, but learn something from them. There have been several changes over the past few months. 

On this day, Robbins also works with students one-on-one while a teaching assistant stays in the classroom. A third-grader reads a short story and Robbins tracks his stumbles on an iPad.

As part of the new law, each student goes through this every 10 to 20 days. It allows teachers to pinpoint exactly where students need help. 

It’s clear to Karla Romero where she can improve. 

“I’m a slow reader and I need to read faster,” says Romero. 

The tests are okay, she says. Some of the passages are boring, but she knows why she has to read them. 

“The state can check the reading passages and see if we can pass to fourth grade.”    

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.