In a summer headline, I dubbed North Carolina's "Read to Achieve" program the "read or flunk plan." The mandate from the state legislature does threaten third-graders with retention if they can't pass reading tests. But six months later, as state and local officials grapple with options, it's becoming clear that the route from third grade to fourth grade is more like a maze than a forked path.
The first branch, as it turns out, has already happened. Soon after this school year began, third-graders took new Beginning-of-Grade reading exams (yes, we now have a BOG test). Late last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools learned that students who scored at third-grade level on that test will be eligible for promotion without having to worry about the barrage of tests they encounter during the rest of the year, spokeswoman Kathryn Block said. CMS is working on a count of how many children cleared that hurdle.
Students who pass the End-of-Grade reading test in May will also be cleared for promotion. But last year fewer than 50 percent of third-graders in CMS and North Carolina cleared that bar. That means some 6,000 students in CMS alone are at risk of getting bad news at the end of the year, and it's impossible to be sure which students might fall short.
That's why districts like CMS and Wake County are planning to make sure all students who might be at risk have a chance to get onto another path to promotion by demonstrating grade-level skills on a series of smaller "portfolio" tests. The current plan means those students will have to read 36 passages and answer questions on them between now and May. CMS is going to the state Board of Education next month to seek approval for an approach that involves fewer tests.
Another fork comes for students who fall below grade level on the portfolio and the final exam. They'll be offered the chance to attend summer reading camps, which by state mandate will be three hours a day for six weeks.
If parents decline to send the kids, they'll be held back.
Think about that one for a minute. As a working parent who doesn't get summers off, I know how hard it would have been for me to get my son to a three-hour program, then find another place for him to be for half the day and get him there. If parents can't or won't do it for whatever reason, their children don't move up to fourth grade.
CMS is seeking state permission to substitute a three-week, six-hour camp, a schedule officials hope will be more practical for parents and more attractive to the skilled reading teachers they want to hire for those sessions.
For those who do go to summer reading camp, there is (what else?) another chance to take a test. If they pass, great. If not, they can be assigned to a combined third/fourth-grade class or to an "accelerated learning" class with extra reading instruction. Those kids can be deemed ready for mid-year promotion to fourth grade.
And if all that isn't complicated enough, there are also exemptions for students with disabilities or limited English proficiency. And here's the one that had steam coming out of some CMS leaders' ears: Charter schools have more flexibility about participating in the Read to Achieve maze. Read the CMS presentation here or view the school board's discussion here (because of a problem with video archiving, the recording starts in the middle of the staff report on Read to Achieve, but the full follow-up discussion is available).