Opinion: Daily Journal

Students Must Read to Achieve

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

I’m talking about the political struggle over North Carolina’s 3rd-grade reading standard, not the violent struggle between Paul Newman and the prison warden in “Cool Hand Luke.” Nevertheless, the consequences could be severe if North Carolina’s dispute isn’t resolved. Any resolution, in turn, will have to begin by understanding the background of two different things: the state’s new promotion standard for 3rd grade and the state’s new end-of-grade tests.

Let’s start with the promotion standard. Two years ago, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2012. One of its provisions, called “Read to Achieve,” required that most 3rd-graders pass the state’s end-of-grade reading test before being promoted to 4th grade. If students failed both the initial test and a retest, and didn’t qualify for a “good cause exemption” (such as possessing a learning disability), school districts were required to offer them additional assistance at a summer reading camp, after which they’d be retested. Students who still failed to pass would be held back in 3rd grade.

State Senate leader Phil Berger and other advocates based their support on strong empirical evidence that acquiring reading skills by the end of 3rd grade is essential to student success in all subjects. Just about everyone involved in the debate, including Democratic lawmakers and State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, agrees with this research.

But what does it mean for a student to “pass” the reading test? Here’s where a second bit of education history is required.

Way back in the early 1990s, North Carolina adopted a new set of state-created exams for 3rd-through-8th graders (called end-of-grade tests) and high school students (called end-of-course tests). A few years later, then-Gov. Jim Hunt and the General Assembly enacted a new accountability program, the ABCs of Public Education, built around the results of those EOGs and EOCs.

Unfortunately, state government did not prove to be a successful testing firm. North Carolina’s EOGs and EOCs were plagued by repeated technical flaws and management snafus. They were also clearly less rigorous than the independent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams, given periodically to statewide samples of 4th- and 8th-graders in North Carolina and most other states. Policymakers, parents, and taxpayers properly came to see the NAEP as the gold standard in measuring student performance. By comparison, North Carolina’s EOGs and EOCs weren’t even bronze. They were more like ceramic — pretty, perhaps, but easily broken.

Here’s an example from the 2010-11 school year to give you a sense of the difference. Both NAEP and the EOGs used a four-level scale to report the results. Among North Carolina 4th-graders, the 2011 NAEP found that 32 percent lacked even basic reading skills (Level 1). Of the remaining 4th-graders, 34 percent had basic reading skills (Level 2), 26 percent were proficient readers (Level 3), and 8 percent were advanced readers (Level 3).

On North Carolina’s 2011 EOGs, however, 72 percent of 4th-graders achieved the state’s Level 3 or above. In other words, North Carolina’s Level 3 was really more like NAEP’s Level 2 “basic” standard (which 68 percent of North Carolina 4th graders had met or exceeded). Similarly, 36 percent of our 4th-graders scored at Levels 1 or 2, vs. 32 percent scoring at NAEP’s Level 1 “below basic” standard.

When Berger and the General Assembly were fashioning the Read to Achieve standard in 2012, then, they were focused primarily on the third or so of North Carolina students who tended to score below basic on the NAEP or below Level 3 on the EOGs. This group continues to be their primary focus, as a Feb. 4 release from Berger’s office demonstrates.

In 2013, however, North Carolina launched a new testing program tied to the implementation of the national Common Core standards. Although Common Core itself has proven problematic, the idea of making North Carolina’s tests more rigorous — moving its proficiency standards closer to NAEP, in fact — was undeniably a good one.

Now look at the 2013 results for each. On the NAEP reading test, 31 percent of our 4th graders scored below basic, 34 percent scored basic, and 35 percent scored proficient or advanced. On North Carolina’s new reading EOG, 24 percent scored at Level 1, 32 percent scored at Level 2, and 44 percent scored at Levels 3 or 4. North Carolina’s new reading test still isn’t as rigorous as the NAEP, but the standards have moved much closer together. Indeed, in math the two tests actually produced similar results for 4th graders in 2013 — 45 percent at Level 3 or higher on the NAEP vs. 48 percent at Level 3 or higher on the EOG.

So where did the communication breakdown about Read to Achieve occur? To put it simply, DPI continued to treat a score at Level 3 or above to be a “passing grade” for the purposes of satisfying the promotion standard. That had been standard practice, after all, and the General Assembly had not specified the threshold for the Read to Achieve standard in its 2012 legislation. On the other hand, how could lawmakers have specified the standard in 2012? They didn’t know what the new tests and achievement levels would look like. They relied on DPI to adjust its administration of the standard to the design and results of the new exam.

The practical effect of this miscommunication was to designate far more North Carolina 3rd-graders as needing remediation at summer reading camps than the state legislature had intended. Reeling from the potential cost and adverse public reaction, the State Board of Education decided to adopt a DPI recommendation to create five achievement levels rather than four — thus making an already complicated situation even more complicated, albeit with the defensible goal of targeting state resources to the below-basic students who most needed the help.

What should have happened instead — and what should occur for the 2013-14 tests and beyond — is that North Carolina should retain its four achievement levels but amend the 2012 legislation to specify that the promotion standard for 3rd-graders will be Level 2 on the reading test, not Level 3. Once the vast majority of North Carolina 3rd-graders meet it, the General Assembly could always revisit the issue and tighten the standard more if it wishes.

North Carolina should set a high goal for student achievement. The John Locke Foundation has long advocated this one: at least 90 percent of our students should possess at least basic skills in reading and math, according to NAEP, and a majority should be proficient in both subjects. No state in the country meets this goal, although Massachusetts comes pretty close at 54 percent/86 percent basic in 8th grade math and 48 percent proficient/84 percent basic in 8th grade reading. If North Carolina were to reach that goal, by the way, then our students would be among the high-scoring in the world — comparable to students in Korea, Japan, the Netherlands, Finland, and Singapore.

Reaching the goal, however, does not require that the vast majority of our 3rd-graders suddenly become fully proficient readers (by NAEP standards). The intent of Read to Achieve was to do ensure that 3rd-graders obtain the basic reading skills they need to study all subjects in 4th grade and beyond. That remains a laudable and practical short-term goal. Let’s define these terms more carefully, revise laws and policies accordingly, and get back on task.

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Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.