In the back corner of Stephen Elrod’s third-grade classroom, a man is lurking who wants to take the children’s money. He’s not a real man, and it’s not real money. It’s a large cartoon drawing of a maniacal character clutching fistfuls of dollars. A plastic bin is attached to the wall below the picture, filled with play money.
“Every time we take a test like Case 21 or EOG we either give him money or we keep our money,” explains Joanne, one of the students. “And, if we don’t make our goal, we have to give him some money, and if we do make our goal, we get to keep our money.”
Third grade is the first year students take end-of-grade tests. And this year, it’s also the first year of Read To Achieve, a state-mandated program that adds another battery of tests to their daily school lives. It was passed by the Legislature back in 20-12 and was designed to address the problem that 40 percent of third-graders aren’t able to read at grade level. It involves reading camps and the real possibility that many more students could be held back.
It also adds a lot of tests.
In Wake County and other large districts, 36 mini-tests are being administered to third graders between January and the EOG test. That’s caused a lot of anxiety for parents and educators.
But here in what everyone calls “Dr. E’s class” at Lockhart Elementary in Knightdale, there’s no sense of panic. Just before recess, Dr. Elrod asks some fo the students if they’re stressed. Montez sticks up his arm.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Since I’ve been taking CASE 21, like kind of, but not really.”
The kids’ low level of stress can be attributed to Dr. Elrod’s 30-plus years in education - his patient, positive demeanor, and the way he’s tried to make a game of it. And the frequency of the tests, instead of causing stress, actually helps relieve it…
“I mean, it’s such a routine,” says Elrod. “And they take the test, they find their score immediately so they know. I wish they would internalize it, but it’s ‘oh, I passed or I didn’t: next day: Oh, I passed or I didn’t.’ But the teacher gets good feedback, so it kind of lays out a little plan for us on how to help them, so when the EOG does come, they’re well-prepared.”
Reducing the number of tests has been one of the few consistent planks on Governor Pat McCrory’s education platform. Over the past year, he’s mentioned it many times.
“We need to have testing relief for our teachers, our students, and their families,” McCrory told a crowd of educators and policy-makers at the Emerging Issues Forum in February. “There are too many tests right now for teachers in North Carolina.”
McCrory is hardly alone in his opinion. Other Republicans agree with him, as do many Democrats, education policy experts, advocates, and parents.
But that didn’t stop Read to Achieve from becoming law two years ago, and adding to the testing load. Senate Leader Phil Berger was the architect of the program, and he says it has a clear, simple goal: to make sure students leave third grade being able to read.
“Because what we’ve seen is those kids who don’t know how to read by the end of the third grade are all too often those kids that end up dropping out of school,” Berger told UNC-TV earlier this year. “So I think we’ve got a moral obligation as legislators, as school administrators, as parents, to make sure our kids are able to read.”
Berger says much of the anxiety has come from poor implementation of Read to Achieve. But on the ground at Lockhart Elementary, it’s been a team effort to take a new, loosely defined program with strict mandates, and make it work.
“Teachers are learning more and more at looking at the good of the Read To Achieve Law,” says Daniel Zoller, the principal at Lockhart. “And interweaving it into their daily lessons. But again it goes back to you’re a third-grade team. If you third-grade team is a well-oiled machine, they’re going to do well. If they’re not, it’s going to be tough.”
Lockhart is a year-round school, and held its first Read to Achieve camp during the last intersession between third-and-fourth quarters. The teachers here sent “invitations” to some of the kids who were struggling, and made the camp sound fun and exciting.
The state is spending about $20 million to fund the camps, or about $10,000 per elementary school. Many educators say it isn’t enough.
“I had a couple parents say, ‘I want my child to go to reading camp, but before and after care is not there.’ So what we did was pulled some funds together just to provide before-and-after care for four or five kids,” says Zoller. “We did it because it was the right thing to do.”
For the third-graders, it will all come down to the end-of-grade tests that start in a week or so. The Department of Public Instruction estimates that about 20 percent will not pass and will be asked to attend another reading camp, and maybe get held back.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.