The problem that is Read to Achieve

March 18, 2014

RALEIGH — The first week of February brought Wayne County mother Jennifer Strickland an eye-popping surprise. A letter from the principal indicated that one of her twin boys — a stellar, straight-A student reading at an almost sixth-grade level — was in danger of being retained in third grade.

A series of new reading minitests were tripping up him — and others. His school, anticipating high rates of failure on end-of-grade reading tests, sent retention letters home as a pre-emptive strike. Parents, says Strickland, are “terrified of what’s coming” on end-of-grade tests later this year; some are working extra jobs to fund private tutors.

What in the world is going on?

Many are pointing the finger at North Carolina’s new Read to Achieve program. Implemented this year as part of a 2012 state law, Read to Achieve requires that third-graders demonstrate grade-level reading proficiency before promotion to fourth grade.

Reading ability is assessed through end-of-grade tests, a state Read to Achieve exam, or portfolios encompassing the 36 minitests Strickland’s son had begun taking. Students who fail to read proficiently must attend summer reading camps; if interventions are unsuccessful, students are retained.

The law’s good intentions are grounded in empirical evidence. Longitudinal research from Donald Hernandez at the City University of New York found that children who are not competent readers by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than children who read well. Other research affirms that third-grade reading skills (or lack thereof) place students on an achievement trajectory that is difficult to alter.

So, what’s the problem?

Read to Achieve’s implementation has been an unmitigated debacle. On minitest reading passages, “the readability is way beyond third grade,” says Mark Edwards, superintendent of the Mooresville Graded School District. Edwards says requirements essentially had “students testing every single week throughout the remainder of the year in what I call a high-stakes, extremely stressful environment for teachers and students.” Superintendents in conversations with teachers, principals, and parents “were getting wave after wave of concern,” notes Edwards.

Online opposition to Read to Achieve has been fast and furious, spawning at least two Facebook pages since January; one accumulated 2,200-plus “likes” in two weeks. Parents are chronicling tears, tension, and tummy aches. A petition demanding an end to Read to Achieve has garnered almost 500 signatures.

Some relief is on the way. The State Board of Education, responding to petitions from 30 school districts, voted in February to allow school systems to use alternative reading assessments to determine proficiency. Tests must be reliable, valid, and approved by local school boards.

Such a move will stanch the stampede to summer reading camp. But 8- and 9-year-olds still must slog through developmentally inappropriate, hastily adopted Common Core standards and an end-of-grade reading test — newly revamped in 2012-13 to align with Common Core — that a majority of last year’s third-graders failed.

A change in test achievement levels may come soon, but it won’t remedy underlying flaws in the standards and tests. Something is wrong here, and it isn’t just with Read to Achieve.

Our prevailing paradigm — implement now, think later — is an exercise in folly. Feckless, heedless decision-making requires constant fixes and begets confusion for parents. Jennifer Strickland is channeling her frustration into a run for school board, saying of school officials’ approach to testing, “They [change] the rules every week. … We can’t keep up.”

Frankly, neither can anyone else. We ought to take a careful, hard look at our state’s ever-shifting testing program. Accountability is necessary and useful, but only when it actually means something.

Right now, it’s anyone’s guess what that is.