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Read by third grade, or face consequences

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

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  • Read to Achieve

    A community conversation on N.C. legislation on third grade reading and student retention will be held Thursday at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 3400 Beatties Ford Road, starting at 6 p.m.

    Panelists: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Supt. Heath Morrison, Gaston County Schools Asst. Supt. Lori Morrow, Mooresville Graded Schools elementary education executive director Crystal Hill and Lincoln County Schools Supt. Dr. Sherry Hoyle.

    Plan to attend? RSVP at readtoachieve@ymcacharlotte.org



This fall, North Carolina launches a new assault on reading proficiency – or rather the lack of proficiency by too many N.C. third graders. N.C. lawmakers hope to change that through a plan that relies a lot on testing and has the controversial mandate that third graders who fail the end-of-year reading test won’t go on to fourth grade.

The focus on third grade reading is important. Study after study shows that failure to read on grade level by third grade often significantly hobbles academic achievement thereafter.

Researchers from the University of Chicago recently used administrative data to track educational outcomes for 26,000 students who were third-graders in 1996-97. They said: “Third-grade reading level was shown to be significant predictor of eighth-grade reading level and ninth-grade course performance even after accounting for demographic characteristics and how a child’s school influences their individual performance. Third-grade reading level was also shown to be a predictor of graduation and college attendance, even when demographic characteristics were included as controls.”

Experts, though, point to a Duke University study that shows early education initiatives such as prekindergarten programs are an essential key to boosting third grade reading levels. The study found that N.C. third-graders had higher standardized reading and math scores in counties that had received more funding for preschool programs when those children were younger. Unfortunately, the N.C. legislature has cut funding for such programs, and has tried to restrict access by compressing income eligibility.

The N.C. third-grade retention policy is modeled on a similar one in Florida, where officials have touted success. But Florida substantially increased money for its reading programs in ways that North Carolina has not. Further, Florida has shown no gains on its state third-grade reading tests since 2009 (its policy began in 2003). Its gap on student performance between blacks and whites has prompted a much criticized plan that sets lower proficiency standards for black students than white students. The most recent NAEP fourth-grade reading scores showed no progress either.

This year’s test results prompted Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett to lament that the results were “flat” and “ unacceptable,” and he said, “I think we have to refocus our efforts on reading.”

Florida’s experience should prove instructive as North Carolina goes down a similar path. According to the Education Commission of the States, studies are showing that just repeating a grade won’t be enough to boost reading comprehension or general academic performance. A lot of the focus will have to be on other components that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and other educators, experts and advocates say are key. That includes teacher training and development, reading coaches, reading summer schools, curriculum and parent engagement.

The elements for success will be the focus of a community conversation this week sponsored by the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, MeckEd, Teach for America and WFAE. A panel of educators including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison will discuss the N.C. law and what it means to educators, students, parents and communities.

It’s an important conversation about a critical issue. Join it on Thursday.

That old slogan still holds true. Reading is fundamental.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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