RALEIGH — Thousands of North Carolina third-grade students are back in class for help with reading this summer, but far fewer than projected are attending the camps mandated by the state’s 2012 Read to Achieve program.
After the law was passed, new tests initially showed that many more students faced being held back than lawmakers had expected. That led school systems and parents to push for changes. Modifications by state legislators and the State Board of Education have eliminated the prospect that tens of thousands of students would have to attend the summer reading camps.
But for those who are attending, the stakes are still high, as the reward for success is promotion to fourth grade.
“A child will not be promoted out of grade 3 if they don’t meet reading proficiency standards,” Deputy State Superintendent Rebecca Garland said.
The camps are a signature part of the Read to Achieve program. The program was backed by the legislature’s Republicans leaders, who hailed it as an anti-social-promotion program that required students to show reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
The requirement that third-grade students show proficiency in reading, or qualify for a “good cause exemption,” to get promoted went into effect the 2013-14 school year. But the change coincided with new state tests based on the Common Core standards that had resulted in sharp declines in passing rates the 2012-13 school year.
With less than 30 percent of third-grade students scoring high enough on a test given last summer that would have exempted them from the Read to Achieve requirements, school districts began looking to reduce the number of kids who might have to attend the camps.
Plans by school districts to require all third-grade students to take as many as 36 mini-tests to show proficiency to qualify for the reading-portfolio exemption sparked a parental backlash.
In February, the State Board of Education began approving local tests that districts could use to show their students had met Read to Achieve requirements.
In March, the State Board lowered the score needed to pass state exams.
In June, the legislature approved several changes, including reducing the length of the camps from six to eight weeks, to three to six weeks and spelling out which students with learning disabilities are exempted. The legislature also made clear that students weren’t required to attend the camps, but could opt to skip them and take a test to try to get promoted.
‘More work’ needed
Another change made by lawmakers said that students who passed the state’s end-of-grade reading test could attend the reading camps if they paid a fee. The camp is free to students who didn’t pass the end-of-grade test.
“It was a measure with the best of intentions but was implemented poorly,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative Raleigh think tank. “The changes they’re implementing will improve it, but more work needs to be done to make it a net improvement for third-grade students.”
Both the Chapel Hill-Carborro school system and Durham took advantage of the changes to shorten their camps to three and four weeks, respectively. Leanne Winner, lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, said shorter camps are more family-friendly to those who have summer plans.
With the changes, enrollment is lower than projected at the camps that began across the state last week.
“I do think the numbers have come down because of the various ways students have been able to show they’re proficient,” said Garland, the deputy state superintendent.
Garland said state officials won’t know until later this summer how many students were in the camps.
Durham had planned for 865 students but only 414 third-grade students who don’t have an exemption failed the reading exam. The district is encouraging students who failed the exam, but who have an exemption, to attend anyway, raising attendance to 678 children so far.
“We want as many children who need the support to be here as possible,” said Stacey Wilson-Norman, Durham’s deputy superintendent for academic services.
‘These kids are excited’
Wake County invited 1,004 traditional-calendar and modified-calendar students who failed the reading exam and who don’t have an exemption to attend camps. With Wake having fewer students than expected, the district also plans to invite students who have exemptions.
The camps are allowing teachers to provide intensive literacy instruction in settings with smaller-than-normal class sizes. But school administrators said they also realized that they had to make the camps seem different enough from regular school to get the students excited about attending. Wake’s camps have themes, chosen by students, such as “Wild Weather,” “Wacky Animals” and “Wide World of Sports.”
During the “Wacky Animals” unit, students are doing things such as creating an animal wax museum and looking first-hand at how animals use camouflage in nature. Along the way, they’re also learning their vocabulary words and fitting in their reading passages.
Wake previously used the units with year-round students when their camps began in March because their schools don’t have a long enough summer break.
“These kids are excited,” said Carter Elmore, a teacher at the reading camp at Yates Mill Elementary School in Raleigh. “If they’re engaged, hopefully they will retain more of what they’ve learned.”
At the end of the camp, students will take a test to show whether they’re proficient. Also during the camp, they’ll take mini-tests to develop a reading portfolio to show whether they’re meeting standards.
Students who don’t show proficiency after the camp ends will either repeat third grade or be placed in a class where they’ll learn fourth-grade material, while also getting extra help on the third-grade reading content. Those students learning the fourth-grade material will get a chance by Nov. 1 to get a mid-year promotion.
Stoops, of the Locke Foundation, said Read to Achieve can be made better by changing the focus from not promoting students to providing more services to struggling students. Stoops can relate as his son, a Wake year-round student, had to attend a camp earlier this year.
But Christopher Hill, director of the education and law project for the N.C. Justice Center, a liberal Raleigh think tank, said Read to Achieve remains broken. He said the focus should be on increasing education funding to help students learn to read.
“You’re not going to fix anything by retaining a student in third grade,” he said. “What you may get is that the kid who’s retained drops out later on.”