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Politics
These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: McCrory Exaggerates Third-Grade Reading Implications

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Former governor and current U.S. Senate candidate Pat McCrory said in a podcast that 75% of third graders failed a grade-level reading test. Was that true?

In our latest fact check of North Carolina politics, we take a look at former governor and current U.S. Senate candidate Pat McCrory. On his podcast this month, McCrory addressed remote learning and its potential effects on students.

"The latest statistics coming out of North Carolina is the following," McCrory said. "Seventy-five percent of third graders in this year's class are not reading at third-grade level. And guess what? If you're not reading at third-grade level by the time you get out of third grade, there's probably over an 80% chance that you will not graduate."

Joining WFAE's "Morning Edition" co-host Marshall Terry to assess that is WRAL's Paul Specht.

Marshall Terry: So, Paul, McCrory there threw out two different numbers. Let's take them one at a time. First, is it true 75% of North Carolina third graders in this year's class are not reading at third-grade level?

Paul Specht: That stat is accurate for the test that they took, but there's some important context missing here. Here's an important thing to know about that test. It is called a "beginning-of-grade" test, and that means that these kids haven't actually gone all the way through third grade yet. And so it sort of makes sense that many of them would not be reading at a third-grade level since they haven't completed that year of school yet. That's one important thing to note here.

There is a difference in this year's beginning-of-grade test when compared with previous tests, and that is that this year, because of the pandemic, schools administered the beginning-of-grade test later in the year than previous years. Typically, students take the beginning-of-grade test — the BOG as they call it — in August or September, right after they go to school. This year because different districts went back at different times, schools were allowed to administer this test as late as March 12.

You might ask, well, how many schools administered the test that late? How many gave it early? And we reached out to the Department of Public Instruction about that, DPI, and they don't have that information.

So, when McCrory says that 75% of students are not reading at grade level, that's obviously a claim that he made in the active voice, as if this is happening right now. The truth here is we don't know when these students took the beginning-of-grade test. It could have been late. It could have been early. McCrory is right about that 75% number, but we don't know right now where these students are over the course of the year. It's possible that they've improved.

Terry: So in other words, that number could change?

Specht: That's right. And often does change, DPI said.

Terry: Now, what about that second number? McCrory said, "If you're not reading at third-grade level, by the time you get out of third grade, there's probably over an 80% chance that you will not graduate." Is that true?

Specht: It's not true. And when I was listening to this podcast, it sounded high to me. When we listen to politicians talk almost any time they give a stat like this and they don't cite their source, we get our ears up.

McCrory's campaign spokesman told us that he was referring to an EdNC blog; they write about education in North Carolina. And a blogger there said that 88% of students who drop out of high school were not reading on grade level in third grade.

Now, see that quote, and that stat, is backward-looking. It's looking at high school students and how they did back in time. But what McCrory said on his podcast was forward-looking. It was a stat that said, hey, if these students don't do well on this test, there is a chance, an 80% chance that they will not do well in the future.

So those are two different things here, although it's easy to see how someone might get confused.

Terry: Is there any data on third-grade reading levels and what they indicate about students' chances for success in high school?

Specht: There is. Now, there's not many comprehensive studies, but experts told us the biggest one that people tend to cite was conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That foundation is considered a credible source, it's cited frequently. And in 2012, they published a book about third-grade reading and how it influences high school graduation. And they found that 1 in 6 children who were not reading at grade level by the end of third grade did not graduate high school on time.

So percentage wise, that comes out to about 16% — much lower than the 80% that McCrory gave. And we asked around; we reached out to N.C. State University, they have a very reputable education program. We reached out to people in the U.K. We reached out to greatschools.org. And none of them had seen a number as high as McCrory gave, and said that study that the Casey Foundation did is probably the one to go with.

Terry: So how did you rate this claim by Pat McCrory then?

Specht: On balance, we rated this "half true." And here's why: Remember, it's two parts. The first part, he said, 75% of third graders in this year's class are not reading at third-grade level. According to the tests that we do have, that is true. There's just some missing context that we don't know when those tests were taken.

And the second part, where he said there's an 80% chance that those third graders won't go on to graduate high school — that's not true.

Terry: All right, Paul, thank you.

Specht: Thank you.

These fact checks are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition. Do you want to know more about politics in North Carolina? Sign up here to have WFAE's weekly Inside Politics newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.