Commentary, Education

Senator Berger’s signature education program continues to fail

In October, researchers from NC State’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation helped to confirm what many educational advocates have long claimed: North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program is a failure. This week’s State Board of Education meeting included a presentation on the evaluation, which served as an important wake-up call to North Carolina’s policymakers. However the evaluation – while rigorous and well-written – leaves many important questions unanswered.

The Read to Achieve program, created by the 2012 budget bill, is an effort to improve early-grades’ reading proficiency by refusing to promote students who fail the state’s third grade reading test. Read to Achieve was based on a similar initiative from Florida and was championed by Senator Phil Berger.

While Florida’s program coincided with improved test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there was little indication that improved scores were driven by forcing struggling young readers to repeat third grade. After all, Florida coupled its third grade retention policy with large investments in interventions to help students become better readers, such as increasing instructional time, hiring reading coaches and intervention teachers, purchasing new instructional materials, investing in teacher professional development, and offering summer reading camps to struggling young readers. In fact, a recent study found Florida’s retention policy had no impact on improving the high school graduation rates of retained students.

North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program took a sharply different approach, attempting to replicate Florida’s apparent success without providing any interventions to help children pass their third grade reading test. North Carolina only invested in diagnostic reading tests to help teachers identify struggling readers and summer reading camps for third graders who had already failed the state reading exam and were facing the possibility of repeating the grade. Districts were required to provide additional tutoring and instruction for failing students, but did not receive additional funding to carry out these mandates.

The Friday Institute evaluation focuses on the narrow question of whether the eligibility for additional reading help (i.e., summer reading camps, additional reading instruction) improved future reading scores for students who just barely failed their third grade reading test. Their research concludes that these interventions have provided no measurable benefit to struggling readers.

These findings are important, as they can help the state reassess and modify the supports provided to struggling readers.

However, the assessment fails to answer the question that I think most North Carolinians want to better understand: why has third grade reading performance plummeted? Since the adoption of the Read to Achieve program, North Carolina’s third grade reading performance has fallen precipitously, more than any other state test.

Are declining third-grade reading scores the product of over-stressing 8 and 9-year olds by telling them they’ll be held back if they fail? Is it because incessant testing kills kids’ (and teachers’) love of reading? Is it because these cohorts have experienced slashed funding for NC Pre-K and other classroom supports?

Regardless, the plummeting test scores and the evaluation paint a damning picture of Senator Berger’s signature education initiative. We already know the program is failing to boost reading achievement. Overall performance continues to drop. And we now know via this latest evaluation that the limited assistance provided to struggling readers has been insufficient to boost their scores. It’s clear that Read to Achieve has been a profound failure and should be abandoned.

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