With five years of test scores showing little benefit from North Carolina’s Read to Achieve program, researchers from N.C. State University decided to dig deeper for hidden gains.
They found nothing.
That’s grim news for a state that has spent more than $150 million on a third-grade reading campaign, believing it could set young children on a path to academic success. In a study released last week, researchers from NC State’s College of Education found no benefit to holding students back if they couldn’t pass reading exams by the end of third grade, nor to giving them free summer reading camps.
State leaders say the report, titled “Is Read to Achieve Making the Grade?”, signals a need to improve the program, not to scrap it. And they say they’re already working on that.
For instance, state Superintendent Mark Johnson says summer reading camps have been expanded to first- and second-graders, testing has been reduced and schools are doing more to work with parents.
And Johnson said the state government and the university’s College of Education are trying to boost teachers’ skill at teaching reading through a $5.9 million Wolfpack Works grant program.
“We will continue to use data-driven analyses, including feedback from classroom teachers, to drive changes ... ,” Johnson said in a Friday statement. “We have an obligation to these students to act with urgency and pursue innovative strategies to ensure every child can read well by the end of third grade.”
The General Assembly passed Read to Achieve legislation in 2012. It was modeled on literacy efforts in other states, including the “Just Read, Florida!” program created by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001. The goal in North Carolina was to end “social promotion” by keeping students in third grade until they could read at grade level and providing extra support to help them get there.
But in the years that followed the percent of North Carolina third- and fourth-graders graders passing state reading exams stayed flat or declined. National reading exams showed equally discouraging results.
The N.C. State team, which included experts from the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, looked for more subtle benefits that might not show up in state averages. They focused on the first group of third-graders who participated in the program and tracked their scores in fourth and fifth grade.
By identifying third-graders who scored just above and just below the score required to pass reading exams, they created two nearly identical groups — one that was promoted to fourth grade and one that had to keep taking tests and doing additional work to clear the Read to Achieve hurdle.
The first batch of Read to Achieve kids weren’t doing any better in fourth or fifth grades than their counterparts, the study found, even if they were held back and assigned to classes with intensive reading intervention.
The researchers broke the results down by gender, race and family income, checking to see if one or more groups benefited even if the overall average didn’t show it.
They found no exceptions.
And they looked at students who participated in reading camps between third and fourth grade. Because those camps aren’t required, they wondered if a smaller group of students who got the most help might show measurable gains.
The study suggests Read to Achieve has been too tightly focused on third grade, saying children need help as soon as they begin school and after they’ve advanced to fourth grade.
Trip Stallings, one of the researchers, said Monday the work actually needs to start earlier and extend beyond the school day. While North Carolina has a highly centralized public education system, he said, early childhood support falls to a more fragmented system of public and private groups.
“The intention of the legislation is admirable. This is probably the best the state can do,” said Stallings, director of policy research at the Friday Institute. “We are wrestling with an issue that starts well before a teacher sees any of these kids.”
The researchers also noted that it’s up to each school district to execute the state-mandated plan. That leads to inconsistencies on everything from teacher skills to the type of summer camps offered.
“Indeed, we have heard from many practitioners from across the state who believe their localized versions of RtA are having an impact on their students, but because of the sometimes very small size of the group of students impacted in most of the state’s (school districts), we are not able to test these intuitions statistically,” the report says.
Patrick Ryan, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said Friday that the findings come as no surprise.
“As the report acknowledges, (districts) have taken different approaches with different results,” he said. “Senate staff has already been analyzing the successes and failures at the local level to make policy adjustments, as would happen with any major initiative.”