NC has spent more than $150 million to boost reading. Are these scores worth it?

North Carolina students have made little progress on reading despite a state program that has pumped more than $150 million into boosting young children's skills, a new round of national exams released Tuesday shows.

About 39 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth-graders were rated proficient in reading on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. The fourth-grade results were slightly above the national average but have ticked downward since the last NAEP exam was given in 2015.

In 2012, North Carolina launched Read to Achieve, a statewide push to make sure students could read at grade level by third grade. Since then, the state has spent $151.7 million on the program, much of it for digital devices for elementary schools and summer camps to help young readers who fall behind.

North Carolina's fourth-grade slump on the national reading exam, which is too small to be considered statistically significant, isn't a surprise. Performance on state reading exams has also been virtually flat. But the slippage came as annual spending on Read to Achieve hit its highest level yet. In 2016-17, the state pumped just over $57 million into Read to Achieve.

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The national exams do show some improvement since 2011, just before Read to Achieve began, with fourth-grade reading proficiency moving from 34 percent to 39 percent. A proficient rating means students have shown "solid academic performance" and "demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter." Nationally, 35 percent of fourth-graders in public schools earned proficient reading scores in 2017.

In 2011, 68 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders were judged to have shown at least basic skills, or partial mastery of grade-level reading. By 2017, that had inched up to 69 percent, compared with 67 percent for public schools nationally.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson, who was elected in 2016, issued a statement saying he's re-evaluating how the state can best spend its money to get results.

"Teachers in North Carolina are working hard, and our state has made strong investments in early grades,” Johnson said. “While it is frustrating for educators and state leaders to see incremental progress instead of general success, we have spearheaded efforts to ensure that all funds invested by our state actually benefit teachers and students."

Challenges everywhere

Overall, North Carolina's reading and math scores track national averages.

Neither the state nor the nation saw significant change since the exams were given in 2015. At both levels, the kind of strong, steady improvement that would signal real progress has proven elusive over the past decade.

The exams, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, are given to a representative sampling of public school students in all states and some large districts. They offer a consistent way to track skills across the years, even as state exams are frequently revised.

This is the first time students took the tests on tablets, rather than using pencils and paper.

The best performance was on fourth-grade math, where 42 percent of North Carolina students and 40 percent nationally earned proficient ratings. Roughly 80 percent of both groups hit the basic level.

In eighth-grade math, 35 percent of North Carolina students rated proficient and 68 percent rated at least basic. National public school results were similar at 33 percent proficient and 69 percent basic.

In eighth-grade reading, 33 percent of North Carolina students hit the proficient mark and 74 percent rated at least basic, compared with 35 percent and 75 percent nationwide.

Race and income matter

State and national averages mask profound differences based on race and income, with little progress toward closing those gaps.

In all subjects and grade levels, white students were about twice as likely as black or Hispanic ones to earn proficient scores. The same was true when low-income students (defined as those who qualify for lunch subsidies) were compared with nonpoor counterparts.

For instance, just over half of North Carolina's white and nonpoor students earned proficient ratings in fourth-grade reading. Only 19 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic and low-income students hit that mark.

In eighth-grade math, where scores were lowest, proficiency was slightly under 50 percent for North Carolina's white and nonpoor students. It was 13 percent for black students, 18 percent for low-income students and 20 percent for Hispanic students.

Across the country, this year's results showed no progress toward closing the race and income gaps, federal officials reported.

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