Legislators grill school chief over reading tests

| January 31, 2014
Superintendent June Atkinson

Superintendent June Atkinson

by Laura Leslie, WRAL, January 29, 2014.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson spent Tuesday morning on the hot seat at a Joint Government Oversight Committee hearing, where lawmakers peppered her with questions and complaints about the state’s new reading test for third-graders.

The test, rolled out over the past few weeks, is designed to comply with the state’s 2012 “Read to Achieve” Law, which mandates that all third-graders must be able to read proficiently at grade level in order to be promoted to the fourth grade. Students who fail to demonstrate proficiency must attend a summer reading camp for remedial help.

Lawmakers say they’re hearing from parents, teachers and administrators that the reading level required to pass the new test is higher than third-grade level and that the “cut score” – the level at which a student is considered proficient – is also set too high.

The testing process itself is also cumbersome. Teachers can use one of five assessments to determine proficiency. Many are choosing to use a “reading portfolio” designed by the Department of Public Instruction. It involves 36 different assessments, a number mandated by the 2012 law.

The roughly 105,000 North Carolina students in the third grade this year will have to cram all of the testing into one semester, instead of spreading it out over a year. Legislators say that’s demoralizing to students and teachers.

It’s also worrisome for superintendents, who may have to find a lot more money for summer remediation programs than budgeted. Early testing indicates most third-graders won’t pass the tests without additional help.

“The summer camps were designed to address those kids that need that remediation the most,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said. “I keep hearing from teachers and local superintendents that we’re looking at 70, 75, maybe even 80 percent, as Sen. (Josh) Stein mentioned, of kids that’ll have to be going to the summer camps.

“Is it a fact that 75 percent of kids are not achieving?” Berger, R-Rockingham, asked Atkinson. “If so, why? Are the standards too high?”

“I do not believe 75 percent of our students are not succeeding in reading in third grade,” she replied.

Atkinson defended the reading level of the new tests as appropriate, a verdict echoed by two North Carolina State University experts who helped design the assessments. Atkinson also pushed back against “incorrect” media reports that all third-graders will have to take 36 reading tests.

“Whether that portfolio and those passages are to be used by the teacher is to be a teacher decision in consultation with the principal,” she repeatedly told legislators, stressing that teachers can also use a beginning-of-grade test to assess students.

However, she added, many schools are using all of the assessment tools “out of an abundance of caution.”

“It looks to me like what we are putting in place is a system that raises a barrier so that students are not able to be promoted unless they go to the summer school or the reading camp,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell. “I’m a little bit concerned that we’ve missed our intention of teaching children to read.”

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, accused Atkinson and DPI of being an “impediment” to reading success, a characterization Atkinson said was “unfair.”

Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, suggested that some teachers may not realize they don’t have to use the 36-test portfolio.

“There are a lot of filters between DPI and a classroom teacher, and I think a lot of things can be twisted around a lot from what the State Board of Education might want the classroom teachers to do, depending on the filter,” Pate said.

The new tests are causing “fear, frustration, and foreboding” for teachers, he said.

“They are in trouble, and as long as they’re in trouble, our education system is in trouble, and I don’t know what we’re going to do about it,” he added. “We’re in real trouble, and we better turn this ship around very quickly.”

Atkinson said she would be willing to consider alternative assessments, at least for 2014. A group of 15 Piedmont school districts will go before the State Board of Education next week, asking for permission to use a different testing method. She said any resulting agreement could be used by other school districts as well.

Berger said lawmakers and teachers should remain focused on the original motivation for the “Read to Achieve” law.

“The failure to read actually amounts to an economic death sentence for our kids,” he said.


Category: Education, SPIN Blog

Comments (3)

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  1. Richard Bunce says:

    Government school systems will never figure out how to assess itself, that must be done by an independent organization. The government education industrial complex will fight any effective assessment of government school systems. At this point the only short term improvement will come from providing parents with the resources to find alternative education systems for their children.

    • Rip Arrowood says:

      So the answer is free market/for profit education with no regulation?

      How long will it take to winnow out the the reputable schools from the fly-by-night startups, how many families will get taken by slick talking “educators”? And how much will it cost the taxpayers to straighten out this impending disaster?

      • Richard Bunce says:

        The answer is the parents who want to are making the best decision for their child not a government education system bureaucrat. Parents can decide to continue to send their children to failing government schools or to an alternative school where they might actually gain proficiency in basic skills the majority of students in government schools do not gain. Just letting government bureaucrats decide the fate of their children is not fulfilling their parental duties. Why do you assume parents are not capable of making the best decisions for their children, something that relatively wealthy parents including many government school teachers and elected officials make every day because they have the resources to pay for their childs alternative education while continuing to fund failing government schools? Why do you deny relatively low income parents this same opportunity? Do you think they are unable to do so?