Legislators hear complaints about reading tests

lbonner@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2014 

Thousands of third-graders facing a blast of high-stakes reading tests may soon get a reprieve if the State Board of Education approves more ways schools can show students are reading as they should.

The tremors from third-grade classrooms statewide, where students are facing a series of 36 short reading tests, were felt in Raleigh on Tuesday as legislators discussed the fallout of Read to Achieve, a law passed in 2012 to curb social promotion.

Under the law, most third-graders must show they’re reading at grade level before being promoted to fourth grade. Most third-graders who fall short on the end-of-grade test will have to go to summer reading camps and pass a standardized test before they move up a grade.

The consequences were aired at the meeting as legislators heard complaints about the heavy testing burden.

Student proficiency on last year’s standardized tests was low. Learning new standards and taking new tests, only about 45 percent of third-graders passed the end-of-grade reading exam last year. To head off the possibility of sending 50 percent or more of this year’s third-graders to reading camps, school districts are requiring students take 36 minitests given over a period of months. Students who do well on enough of those tests will be able to avoid camp, retests and retention – even if they don’t pass the end-of-grade exam.

Teachers in tears

But the prospect of having children endure so much testing rankles teachers and parents. That led to a round of finger-pointing in Raleigh and the prospect that the testing burden will be eased.

Sen. Louis Pate, a Mount Olive Republican, said teachers broke into tears each time he met with them in the past six months.

“I’m discovering there’s a lot of frustration, fear and foreboding amongst those teachers,” he said. “They are in trouble, and as long as they’re in trouble, I think our education system is in trouble.”

Legislators said they never envisioned so many children would be at risk of failing. Senate leader Phil Berger, the Eden Republican who championed the law, said the state Department of Public Instruction botched the implementation. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat, said the department did what the law required but suggested the legislature make some rules more flexible.

The tests were never meant for a broad swath of students, Atkinson said. Though Atkinson said she understands that districts are acting out of fear, the minitests were meant to be used selectively.

School superintendents said the reading passages in the minitests are much too hard for third-graders.

Alternatives proposed

School districts are proposing their own alternatives to testing. A group of 15 districts in the Piedmont/Triad is asking the state education board to allow it to use Iowa Tests or reading comprehension data that teachers are already gathering for each student as proof of grade-level reading. If the state board allows these alternatives, Davie County schools will stop the broad use of portfolios, said district Superintendent Darrin L. Hartness.

Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have also put in place the wide use of portfolios. CMS wants to use student reading progress recorded on the brand of software it uses. If the state board allows it, CMS will drop the minitests.

Atkinson said the board is expected to approve the alternatives at its meeting next month. Any alternative approved for one district can be used in any other.

Wake parents would like to see an alternative as well.

Suzanne Templeton, who has a daughter in third grade at Lacy Elementary, said there’s no sense in adding more tests.

Classrooms should be environments where teachers can teach and students learn more than how to take tests, she said.

“Is it fair to put an additional 18 to 32 hours of testing on these children so that at the end of third grade they’re tested for 50 hours?” she asked. “That’s 50 hours of learning that we’re losing.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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