Its hard to argue with the notion that students should be able to read on grade level by the end of third grade.
But a new state law saying low scores on reading exams can hold children back from promotion to fourth grade drew vigorous discussion Thursday from top officials in four Charlotte-area school districts.
The research is clear that when students are retained, their chances of graduating drop dramatically, Crystal Hill, executive director of elementary education in Mooresville Graded Schools, told about 200 educators and advocates at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in northwest Charlotte.
North Carolinas Read to Achieve program, which takes effect this school year, is an attempt by state lawmakers to ensure that all children who advance to fourth grade have the reading skills to succeed. Third-graders who fail the reading exam next spring face retention, though theyll have opportunities to retake the test and catch up during summer school. Schools can also use a good cause exemption to promote some children, including those with limited English proficiency or disabilities and children who have previously been retained.
The YMCA of Greater Charlotte, MeckEd, WFAE and Teach For America hosted Thursdays panel discussion on the likely effects of the law. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison, Lincoln County Superintendent Sherry Hoyle and Gaston County Deputy Superintendent Lory Morrow joined Hill on the panel.
In 2012, almost 30 percent of third-graders in North Carolina and CMS failed the reading test. In CMS alone that translates to about 3,200 children.
Are we going to have enormous third-grade classes next year? asked moderator Mike Collins, host of WFAEs Charlotte Talks, which will air the discussion at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Friday.
All four leaders on the panel said theyre working on ways to make sure students pass, and to help those who dont pass clear the bar during the summer.
Arthur Griffin, a former CMS school board chair who attended, voiced concern and skepticism. He said North Carolina has already tried three times to block social promotion from third grade, with little result. Each failure erodes public confidence, said Griffin, who now works for the McGraw-Hill Education publishing company.
If we fail for the fourth time, youre going to see public education disappear, he said.
Morrison said he thinks thats too pessimistic. He said Read to Achieve has the right goals, but the state has failed to provide the support to make it work.
Its the right mandate, but give us the tools, he said. You cant just raise the accountability and lower the resources.
Panelists and audience members voiced frustration with a state budget passed this week, which cuts money for teacher assistants and instructional supplies, ends tenure and shifts money to private-school vouchers.
My personal feeling is that clearly there is an attack on public education, Hill said.
Morrison noted that legislators granted a special allowance for year-round calendars in the Project LIFT zone, a public-private partnership to boost achievement in West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools. Four of those schools began the 2013-14 year this week, in hopes that the new calendar will avoid the loss of skills that typically occurs during long summer breaks.
Morrison said hed like to do the same at other high-poverty schools where students struggle to get to grade level and stay there. But state law requires most public schools to end the year around June 10 and start no earlier than Aug. 25.
I have a business proposition for the state of North Carolina, Morrison said. Give us what businesses have the opportunity to do, which is to set your own hours of operation.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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