Reading program for students changed by Senate

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH — North Carolina's new requirements for third-graders to show they're reading proficient and should be promoted were altered Wednesday by Senate Republicans in response to complaints from educators and parents about testing anxiety.

The changes approved by the Senate Education Committee came from chamber leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, who championed the "Read to Achieve" law developed over the past two years. While third-graders have five ways to show they meet reading standards, one path requiring them to take up to 36 in-class mini-tests starting this calendar year caused the most hand-wringing in schools. It had initially raised fears that most of the state's 105,000 third-graders would be forced to get extra summer help.

"We have listened to concerns," Berger said during the committee. "This bill helps address those concerns."

The State Board of Education already agreed in February to allow all school districts to administer their own version of the reading "portfolio" tests as long as local boards determine they reliably demonstrate reading comprehension in third grade.

Some school districts initially had decided to require all of their third-grade students to take the state-developed reading "portfolio" tests. But teachers and local administrators said the state-offered exams weren't appropriate to evaluate necessary third-grade skills.

Berger's proposed changes would allow the tests to begin earlier in the school year, while an approved amendment from Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, could reduce the number of required mini-tests. It also gives districts more flexibility on how to implement summer reading camps, which students are offered to participate and build skills before taking another proficiency test after camp or during a combined third- and fourth-grade class next fall. Students already can meet the reading promotion requirements by passing an early-year test or an end-of-grade test.

The bill also would give additional exemptions to prevent students from being kept back, such as those with learning disabilities.

About 65 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders last year read below proficiency levels on a national exam considered more difficult than recent North Carolina reading tests.

The result should "move us further along to the ultimate goal, which is to have more of our third-graders reading at grade level by the end of the third grade," Berger said in an interview. The bill next goes to the Senate floor.

Suzanne Templeton of Raleigh told the committee her third-grade daughter Gabriella was a high-performing reader but had lost her love for school after getting rattled by the test-taking associated with implementing the Read to Achieve law.

"Tests are a part of life but why is it necessary to squash a natural curiosity to learn by putting these students through so many hours of testing in the third grade?" Templeton asked.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph and the committee chairman, told Templeton that lawmakers and educators are trying to ease the anxieties of students. "We all heard you," Tillman said. "There's a test panic going on."

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