Raleigh, N.C. — The state Senate's top leader and the head of North Carolina's school system are at odds over a new state law that requires all third-grade students to pass a standard reading test before moving on to fourth grade.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat, says she supports provisions of a 2012 state law that puts more resources toward helping struggling third-graders read. However, she says that parents, teachers and principals should be the ones ultimately making the decision as to whether students should advance.
Lawmakers, she said, should make changes to the law to give school districts more flexibility.
"That decision should be made closest to the child," Atkinson said, adding there were big downsides to "labeling a child as a failure."
The new promotion law has been a centerpiece of Sen. Phil Berger's education reform package. Berger, a Republican and the powerful Senate president pro tem, points to studies showing that students who don't read well by the end of third grade are more likely to have trouble later on in their academic career and drop out of high school.
"Superintendent Atkinson’s continued insistence that we keep advancing kids who can’t read into fourth grade is disturbing and could amount to an economic death sentence for those students," Berger said in a news release. "We – the legislature, the Department of Public Instruction, educators and parents – can no longer accept allowing even a single child who has the ability to learn to leave third grade unable to read.”
Berger pointed out that, in 2010, Atkinson promoted standards for fifth- and eighth-grade students that also served as a gateway to higher grades.
Atkinson said she supports portions of Berger's plan that invest in summer reading camps for students and give grade-level teachers extra help in bringing students up the speed. However, she said that holding children in third grade on the basis of one reading score was unwise.
"I have personal reasons for thinking this," Atkinson said Tuesday.
She pointed to her nephew, now a college freshman, who struggled with reading at the end of third grade. Instead of holding him back, her nephew's school helped him bring his reading skills up to par. At the same time, she said, her nephew was able to advance with his friends from church, baseball and school.
Atkinson said she was optimistic that the legislature might adopt changes to the law that would allow schools to make "more individual" decisions for each student.
"There are some provisions of the bill that are somewhat burdensome for students," she said.