There is no doubt that ensuring that 3rd graders read at grade level or above is a great goal. The recently revised Read to Achieve section of the Excellent Public Schools Act is North Carolina’s way to carry out that goal. Very much like other education policies that North Carolina has adopted (vouchers, repealing Common Core), Read to Achieve started in other states.
The most damaging part of Read to Achieve is the retention policy, particularly retention based on the results of high-stakes testing. If a 3rd grade student cannot show proficiency in reading, s/he will be left back. There are reams of paper of research that show how detrimental retention is for students. The website for Mecklenburg ACTS, a pro-public education organization contains a lot of information about Read to Achieve as well as the problems with high-stakes testing.
There are things that can be done to make Read to Achieve less punitive.
- The best idea would be for North Carolina to do what Oklahoma did. Oklahoma repealed the retention section of its law to allow parents and educators to decide if the student should be promoted even if the student did not pass the high-stakes test. Unfortunately, that is unlikely since North Carolina just revised the law.
- The reading portfolio described in the law should be a body of work over time. The portfolio allows for a student to show evidence of mastery of reading benchmarks. That mastery does not have to be done through testing.
- Personal Education Plans (PEPs) must be used for struggling students. Students at-risk for failure must be offered interventions to help them succeed and all efforts must be provided free-of-charge, including transportation to and from the activities. It is important to note that PEPs are not just for reading but must be given for every class a student is at-risk of failing.
- Adequately fund early childhood programs. A Duke study showed that 3rd grade reading scores were raised in jurisdictions with early childhood programs even for students who did not attend the programs. The rising tide of early childhood programs raised all 3rd grade reading boats.
Our youngest children should not fear school because of constant testing. When education is enjoyable, students will achieve. If students are struggling, we need to use all interventions at our disposal. That means having resources like textbooks and teaching assistants. Test anxiety will not bring reading achievement.
Students do not achieve because of copycat laws that punish students. We need to copy things that have already been successful like professionalizing and respecting teachers and treat learning as a lifelong goal not information to pass a high stakes test. Most importantly, students will have better chances at achievement when we not only provide not only reading interventions but intervene to provide adequate healthcare, safe and affordable housing and access to healthy food.