5,000 CMS third-graders failed a test required for grade 4. What happened to them?

Volunteers work one-on-one with elementary students, like this pair at Lake Wylie Elementary last year, to increase reading success.
Volunteers work one-on-one with elementary students, like this pair at Lake Wylie Elementary last year, to increase reading success.

In 2012 North Carolina lawmakers decided they could improve education by requiring third-graders to show they could read at grade level before advancing to fourth grade. The idea was that educators, students and families would be more motivated to develop reading skills early.

But five years later, the law that was billed as ending “social promotion” hasn’t created a more literate student population. In North Carolina and CMS, third-grade reading proficiency has actually dropped slightly in the ensuing years, according to 2017 data released last week.

One result of the state’s Read to Achieve program is an annual summer scramble to push thousands of 9-year-olds who failed their reading exam past the mark needed for promotion to fourth grade.

Last spring, almost 5,000 CMS third-graders failed the reading test. That was about 40 percent of the class – a percentage that’s very similar to the state average.

About 900 of them were exempted from retention “for good cause,” a category that can include students with disabilities, those who have demonstrated grade-level reading skills in other ways and those who have already been held back once.

The rest took the exams again. If they failed again, they could attend a summer reading camp in hopes of making the grade. After all that about 2,500 children were left who still couldn’t read well enough – or at least test well enough – to move up to a regular fourth-grade class. Repeating third grade is one option for them, though many are placed in transitional or fourth-grade classes but get intensive reading help.

While the Read to Achieve strategies haven’t proven effective, few argue with the premise: Children must be able to read well in elementary school to thrive in higher grades.

In recent years, community groups such as Read Charlotte have donated thousands of books for young CMS students. The district has recruited one-on-one reading volunteers and equipped them with strategies to help children build skills. CMS has trained teachers to use every lesson to boost reading, writing and comprehension.

CMS Chief Academic Officer Brian Schultz says the district will “double down” on those approaches, while doing more to prepare children before they set foot in a third-grade class. North Carolina is expanding its public prekindergarten program, and CMS will announce a renewed push this fall to recruit volunteers to read with about 5,000 second-graders who need help.

“The buildup to that is probably more important than third grade itself,” Schultz said.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms