A welcome alternative to standardized test

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One of the more disturbing academic findings of the recent athletics scandal at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill centered on the reading ability of highly recruited sports stars.

In short, an academic adviser found that a large number of athletes – all high school graduates, of course – had difficulty reading beyond an eighth-grade level. And many stumbled over reading material targeted at even lower grade levels.

The N.C. General Assembly might not have had the UNC-Chapel Hill scandal in mind when it passed legislation requiring reading proficiency before students could be promoted past the third grade. But the aim of the 2012 legislation is sound. Giving kids a “social promotion” when they can’t read does no favors for the student or his or her future teachers.

The Read to Achieve law sets a clear standard, and it requires third-graders to pass a statewide exam so their reading abilities can be assessed and compared all over North Carolina. The only problem with the approach is it hinges entirely on the ability of a third-grader – a 9-year-old, in essence – to show up with his A game on test day. That’s asking a lot of every third-grader in North Carolina.

The N.C. Board of Education has come up with a welcome alternative. The board will allow school districts to apply for an exemption to the exam. If students compile a portfolio of work that includes classroom reading tests and other evidence of reading proficiency, they can be considered for promotion, regardless of how they perform on the statewide test.

That’s a worthy alternative route. It takes the assessment out of the hands of a faceless test administrator and into the hands of the teachers who know the students’ abilities best.

That’s a better means of judging the abilities in an area as critical to future academic achievement as reading comprehension.