Raleigh, N.C. — 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.