Lawmakers grill schools chief over reading tests

Posted January 28, 2014

June Atkinson, North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction

— State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson spent Tuesday morning on the hot seat at a Joint Government Oversight Committee hearing, where lawmakers peppered her with questions and complaints about the state's new reading test for third-graders.

The test, rolled out over the past few weeks, is designed to comply with the state's 2012 "Read to Achieve" Law, which mandates that all third-graders must be able to read proficiently at grade level in order to be promoted to the fourth grade. Students who fail to demonstrate proficiency must attend a summer reading camp for remedial help. 

Lawmakers say they're hearing from parents, teachers and administrators that the reading level required to pass the new test is higher than third-grade level and that the "cut score" – the level at which a student is considered proficient – is also set too high. 

The testing process itself is also cumbersome. Teachers can use one of five assessments to determine proficiency. Many are choosing to use a "reading portfolio" designed by the Department of Public Instruction. It involves 36 different assessments, a number mandated by the 2012 law. 

The roughly 105,000 North Carolina students in the third grade this year will have to cram all of the testing into one semester, instead of spreading it out over a year. Legislators say that's demoralizing to students and teachers.

It's also worrisome for superintendents, who may have to find a lot more money for summer remediation programs than budgeted. Early testing indicates most third-graders won't pass the tests without additional help. 

"The summer camps were designed to address those kids that need that remediation the most," Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said. "I keep hearing from teachers and local superintendents that we're looking at 70, 75, maybe even 80 percent, as Sen. (Josh) Stein mentioned, of kids that'll have to be going to the summer camps.

"Is it a fact that 75 percent of kids are not achieving?" Berger, R-Rockingham, asked Atkinson. "If so, why? Are the standards too high?" 

"I do not believe 75 percent of our students are not succeeding in reading in third grade," she replied.

Atkinson defended the reading level of the new tests as appropriate, a verdict echoed by two North Carolina State University experts who helped design the assessments. Atkinson also pushed back against "incorrect" media reports that all third-graders will have to take 36 reading tests.

"Whether that portfolio and those passages are to be used by the teacher is to be a teacher decision in consultation with the principal," she repeatedly told legislators, stressing that teachers can also use a beginning-of-grade test to assess students.

However, she added, many schools are using all of the assessment tools "out of an abundance of caution."

"It looks to me like what we are putting in place is a system that raises a barrier so that students are not able to be promoted unless they go to the summer school or the reading camp," said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell. "I'm a little bit concerned that we've missed our intention of teaching children to read."  

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, accused Atkinson and DPI of being an "impediment" to reading success, a characterization Atkinson said was "unfair."

Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, suggested that some teachers may not realize they don't have to use the 36-test portfolio.

"There are a lot of filters between DPI and a classroom teacher, and I think a lot of things can be twisted around a lot from what the State Board of Education might want the classroom teachers to do, depending on the filter," Pate said. 

The new tests are causing "fear, frustration, and foreboding" for teachers, he said. 

"They are in trouble, and as long as they're in trouble, our education system is in trouble, and I don't know what we're going to do about it," he added. "We're in real trouble, and we better turn this ship around very quickly."

Atkinson said she would be willing to consider alternative assessments, at least for 2014. A group of 15 Piedmont school districts will go before the State Board of Education next week, asking for permission to use a different testing method. She said any resulting agreement could be used by other school districts as well. 

Berger said lawmakers and teachers should remain focused on the original motivation for the "Read to Achieve" law.

"The failure to read actually amounts to an economic death sentence for our kids," he said.


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  • icdmbpppl Feb 3, 2014

    Common Core will be just another failed experiment. June Atkinson and anyone else in DPI who supports Common Core should be shown the door. Terrible for teacher, terrible for kids. Try some commons sense instead of Common Core.

  • dexterrose2 Feb 1, 2014

    NCEDUCATOR79 & LOVETOTEACH3 are spot on with everything they've said. I am a 3rd gr. remed. tutor so I see 1st hand how hard & how much time & heart these teachers are giving to their students. I've seen some cry from these test results, wanting to teach from them but can't. I've seen these really good, young excited teachers slowly lose there joy of teaching because they aren't given much time at all to teach, they are just Testers! I've also seen these poor students come dragging into school knowing what's waiting for them first thing 3 mornings out of the week because one of them is my own daughter. I've seen their poor little faces as they get the disappointing news once more that they've failed. I also watched a student leave school early after making the comment he wished he where dead, he'd spent another morning crying over his test saying it was just too hard. I work with these kids after the test, they read to me, and some have said, I use to like to read now I hate it.

  • nceducator79 Jan 31, 2014

    As a teacher and a parent of a third grade child, all these tests are ridiculous and aren't doing anything for the students. And...what a joke the summer program is. There is no way the state will be able to afford summer school for all the kids that will fail this test. Districts have abandoned summer school for the past 6 years or so. Suddenly they'll come up with money for all the third graders that fail?

    Common Core isn't the issue here. It's testing. You want to teach a kid? Give them a pretest, see what they don't know and teach them that. Then, test them again at the end to make sure they learned it. If they didn't, re-teach it. But, be skill specific. These tests are no skill specific, kids get no feedback and they are a total waste of time.

    Teachers write these tests...that's a joke. Probably teachers who got out of teaching because they couldn't handle it anymore or were bad teachers.

  • Lovetoteach3 Jan 31, 2014

    KILLIAN...you are correct, the passages are not tests. However, we must treat them as tests. We have to sign out the passages each day, keep materials locked up & secured, & are not allowed to tell the kids how they did. We most certainly cannot go over the questions or talk about the passages, so students aren't learning from these passages that they spend so much time completing. I understand you think it's nowhere close to the reading EOG test because it only has 5 questions, but the way we must administer it, the difficulty of the reading level, and stress it produces in students make these passages very similar to the EOG. It's essentially the EOG broken into 36-72 sessions, each taking an average of 30 minutes. From your post, it seems you think the passages are no big deal, but until you've been a 3rd grade teacher and have seen the negative impact it has on students & the missed instructional time, it's hard to understand what a big deal these passages really are.

  • 1010 Jan 30, 2014

    View quoted thread

    I so agree. Those in the trenches are seldom consulted, yet they are the ones who know best how and what to teach our children.

  • tracmister Jan 30, 2014

    Imagine how much wasted money has been spent on these tests in developing them and producing them. If you're looking to cut waste from government, here is a good place to start. Anyone who knows these tests, knows that in the past several years the state hasn't gotten it correct yet.

  • DoctorKay Jan 30, 2014

    This is what happens when lawmakers exclude educators from the process of crafting education legislation. A common refrain from legislators has been "this is not what we meant when we passed this law". If they would have put aside their animosity towards public education in general and the NCAE in particular, they would have known what such a requirement would entail.

  • sisu Jan 30, 2014

    View quoted thread

    People can disagree for many reasons.. not always because they are correct.

  • Truth told Jan 30, 2014

    I am not sure if this has been pointed out or not but notice that when it was brought up that educators are saying how many will pass the test Atkinson says she doesn't believe that is the case. This is what is happening over and over again. The powers that be do not listen to or quickly dismiss what professionals in the classroom are telling them. It is disgraceful how teachers are rarely consulted and even more rarely their ideas are taken into consideration. Their insight is spot on and their suggestions are workable. But what do they know, they are only in the classrooms everyday. Virginia anyone?

  • glarg Jan 30, 2014

    View quoted thread

    The story disagrees with you:
    "Atkinson defended the reading level of the new tests as appropriate, a verdict echoed by two North Carolina State University experts who helped design the assessments."