Read or flunk: Changing NC law puzzles parents

Hundreds of Mecklenburg families who sent their children to summer reading camps, believing it was the ticket to fourth-grade promotion, learned this week that North Carolina’s reading rules have changed again.

Under the latest twist in the state Read to Achieve program, the once-mandatory summer program has been redefined as optional.

Children who are attending still face retention if they fail a summer reading test, while children who skipped the camp can take the test and be promoted. When the summer began, promotion hinged on camp attendance, rather than scores on another test.

“This summer reading program is a joke,” said Marquitta Irvin, mother of a Clear Creek Elementary child hoping to advance to fourth grade. “This is disappointing, and someone really dropped the ball from the beginning.”

Thousands of children across North Carolina fall under the ever-changing mandates of the reading act, passed last summer. The goal – ensuring that students have the reading skills they need to keep moving up – wins universal acclaim. But educators and policymakers have spent the past year struggling to turn good intentions into a practical program.

Chuck Nusinov, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrator in charge of Read to Achieve, says he’s hearing from plenty of confused parents, and he understands their frustration.

Last year’s third-graders, the first group affected by the law, were several months into the school year before the N.C. Department of Public Instruction spelled out all the options for proving reading proficiency by year’s end. Some parents and teachers complained that the efforts created an overload of testing.

Irvin says her son, Nicholas, earned A’s and B’s on his report card but didn’t pass the year-end reading test. She said the late start on a “portfolio” alternative, which lets third-graders demonstrate their skill on a series of smaller tests, didn’t allow time for students to complete the process.

Nicholas was among approximately 1,900 CMS third-graders notified they’d have to attend summer reading camp to be promoted. Statewide numbers haven’t been released, but CMS accounts for roughly one-tenth of North Carolina’s public school students.

Nusinov said about 1,600 of those students have attended the summer program. But in June, the General Assembly revised the law, making it mandatory for school districts to offer the summer camp but not for students to attend. CMS prepared a letter to parents as soon as DPI provided instructions, he said.

The CMS camps run for six weeks, with almost two weeks left to go.

“The new law states that the Read to Achieve Summer Camp attendance is encouraged and CMS hopes that all of our parents will continue to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity,” the letter says. “Students must be proficient in reading before the end of the summer to be promoted to grade 4. Your son/daughter will take the Read to Achieve Assessment on July 28th.”

Students will have three summer testing options, Nusinov said, and CMS is trying to contact parents of students who haven’t attended camp to let them know that their kids also have another chance to pass the test and be promoted.

Principals will decide what happens next for students who come up short on the summer exams. Although the law requires that student records reflect retention, they could be held back in third grade or assigned to a fourth-grade class with extra reading support. Those decisions will be based on each student’s overall academic record and maturity, not just on reading scores, Nusinov said.

Those who demonstrate third-grade reading proficiency by Nov. 1 will have the “retention” label removed, he added.

At least that’s how things stand now. Nusinov says state officials have warned school districts that until the General Assembly adjourns there could be more Read to Achieve changes. The department’s 2014 guidebook, updated in June, is still labeled “draft” for that reason.

Irvin, who has another child entering third grade in August, says the whole thing has been so frustrating she’s considering putting her house on the market and moving to South Carolina.

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