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WUNC's American Graduate Project is part of a nationwide public media conversation about the dropout crisis. We'll explore the issue through news reports, call-in programs and a forum produced with UNC-TV. Also as a part of this project we've partnered with the Durham Nativity School and YO: Durham to found the WUNC Youth Radio Club. 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 and these generous funders: Project Funders:GlaxoSmithKlineThe Goodnight Educational FoundationJoseph M. Bryan Foundation State FarmThe Grable FoundationFarrington FoundationMore education stories from WUNC

Under Pressure, NC Schools Request Different Third-Grade Reading Tests

School districts say current assessments under the Read to Achieve mandate are excessive and take away from teaching time.
Judy Baxter via Flickr

Calling the current testing mandate excessive, school districts are asking the State Board of Education if they can implement their own tests to fulfill the state’s new reading law for third-grade students.

Under the Read to Achieve law, passed last year, third-grade students are required to attend summer reading camps if they are not reading at grade level by the end of the year.

Students are considered proficient readers if they pass the end-of-grade exam, though teachers have the option of testing students with other assessments. One of those assessments is what the state is calling a reading portfolio, which involves 36 mini-tests administered between January and May.

While it’s recommended that schools complete portfolios for struggling students, some are requiring them for every third-grade student before they can enter fourth grade.

However, some schools are pushing back. More than 25 school districts have asked the State Board of Education if they can use alternative local tests in lieu of the portfolio. Mary Ellis, the superintendent of Union County Public Schools, says she supports the law, but is disappointed with its implementation.

"Parents are very upset about it. Teachers are crying. Principals are livid." - Mary Ellis

“Parents are very upset about it. Teachers are crying. Principals are livid,” she says. “In every principal meeting we’ve had, our elementary principals say ‘Dr. Ellis, what are you doing about this? What is the state doing about this?'” she said.

Ellis, along with several of superintendents, is hoping to use testing programs that students are more familiar with.

Members of the State Board of Education say they understand the difficulties in implementing the reading portfolios, but want to ensure that alternative tests are both reliable and effective.

"I think we need to keep remembering the goal [is] the children. We want the children to be able to read, so they can continue their education and just not just keep bumping them forward." - Rebecca Taylor

“Right now, I think there’s a lot of ambiguity, and I think we’re all trying to follow the law,” says Rebecca Taylor, a former school teacher and member of the board. “I think we need to keep remembering the goal [is] the children. We want the children to be able to read, so they can continue their education and just not just keep bumping them forward.”

In a meeting this week, Mark Edwards, a superintendent and board member, urged members to be thoughtful in the implementation of the Read to Achieve requirements to help avoid an even bigger mess.  

"It is beyond the pale that we're putting our students and teachers through this process," said Edwards. "We need to get this right. It needs fine-tuning."

Board members say they’re likely to approve alternative proposals, though some may need extra clarification. If approved, the alternatives can be used by other school districts across the state without further request from the state.

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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