Third Grade Reading Law Has Tests And Promise

Jan 4, 2016

North Carolina’s third-grade reading law got lots of complaints from teachers and parents its first year in classrooms. It was hard then to see if it was actually helping students to read. Those third graders who were the first to encounter changes under the law are now almost all fifth graders with two years of test data behind them. So how’s it going? 

“We feel like we’re on the right track and we feel like we’re working toward what these children need,” says Carolyn Guthrie with the NC Department of Public Instruction. She had to translate this law to all of the state’s schools. 

As proof, she points to North Carolina’s scores on the Nation’s Report Card. In 2013 before the law took effect, 35 percent of the state’s fourth-graders were considered proficient in reading. Now, 38 percent are. Fourth-grade reading scores on the state’s own tests also rose three percentage points.

“We’re beginning to see results, but the full implementation and full change process usually takes about five years,” says Guthrie. 

The scores are just one way to judge the law’s impact. How it plays out in classrooms is another. In that regard, that first year was a real struggle for teachers who had to fit in a lot more tests.

Mooresville Graded Schools Superintendent Mark Edwards, conveyed that to the NC Board of Education in 2014. 

“I’ll tell you the exasperation levels are off the chart.  It is off the charts,” said Edwards emphatically. 

The board did make some changes in an effort to reduce the time spent on assessments. Districts can now use some reading tests they already administer to decide whether a third-grader can move on to fourth grade without a retained label.

That’s helped. Still, third-graders take a lot of tests.  

“It was time intensive. It still is time intensive,” says Deputy Superintendent of Cabarrus County Schools Jason Van Heukelum. “There are times when you feel like it’s taking away from instruction. That’s a constant tension that we have, the balance between assessment and instruction.”

Overall, he says, things are going much smoother partly because teachers are more comfortable with administering and grading the tests.

The law also required districts to set up summer reading camps for those struggling third-graders. The state gave districts money for that, but many like Cabarrus County Schools ended up pitching in district funds too. 

CMS’s Chief Academic Officer Brian Schultz is thankful for the spotlight the law has put on reading, but feels it needs more heft. 

“If the priority is placed on reading at grade-level by third grade, then the budget and the funding mirrors that priority,” says Schultz. 

He says cuts to teacher assistants in recent years made it harder to follow through on that.

Support for reading did get a $20-million dollar boost in this year’s budget. The summer reading camps for third-graders will now be open to first- and second-graders.