- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Local school superintendents and legislators complained Tuesday about the execution of reading assessment standards third-graders must meet before getting promoted to the next grade, which are stressing out students and teachers alike.

The state’s top educator sought to ease worries that most of the state’s 105,000 third-graders would have to attend reading boot camps this summer and suggested an alternative assessment method was more workable. But Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson acknowledged the new way of doing things was placing new pressure on students and educators to succeed.

“I have faith in our teachers,” Atkinson said at General Assembly oversight committee. “But at the same time, I recognize the standards are challenging and that the content is more difficult.”

A 2012 state law championed by Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, directed a tough-love approach to help students meet proficiency standards in reading before they can start fourth grade. 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 “Read to Achieve” law gives third-graders five paths to meet the promotion requirement in reading. One of those paths has teachers giving as many as 36 mini-tests to some students beginning this month through the end of the school year. The child answers questions based on the passage must pass 70 percent of the time to meet promotion standards.

Local school district chiefs told lawmakers this “portfolio” testing requirement got off to a rocky start for their teachers, who are already feeling the weight of other standardized tests and low morale after years without pay raises. The mini-tests are designed to prove students are proficient in each of 12 reading standards.

Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Don Phipps said schools received passages just a few weeks ago that form the basis of the assessments. He said teachers must spend at least 30 minutes three times a week on the assessments. They also question whether the passages are too hard for third-graders.

“I will tell you that the portfolio implementation in our county has not been a pleasant experience for teachers or for students,” Davie County Schools Superintendent Darrin Hartness told the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations.

Students who don’t qualify for promotion through one of the five paths would be offered a 6- to 8-week summer reading camp. They would have another chance to advance to the next grade by taking a test after camp or during a combined third- and fourth-grade class next fall. There are some exceptions, such as for children with limited English proficiency.

Atkinson said teachers shouldn’t be using the portfolio assessment on all children.

She said 19 percent of all students scored well enough on a larger reading test at the start of the school year to already qualify for promotion, while another 32 percent of the test takers had scores that showed they could be on their way to meeting the standards with school-year help.

The Read to Achieve law allows the State Board of Education to approve alternative assessments proposed by local school districts. Hartness said 15 Triad-area school districts have proposed an alternative to be considered next week by the board. If approved, it would be available to all 115 districts statewide.

Republican legislators pushed back on the department run by Atkinson, a Democrat, accusing the agency of poor communication with districts about the law. “This was foisted upon you at the last minute,” Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, told Phipps. “We’re at the 11½ hour for something that should have been done 15 or 18 months ago.”

Legislators talked about teachers in tears over their extra workload and students not wanting to go to school because of the extra tests. Berger, the committee’s co-chairman, told colleagues he was committed to ensure children had an opportunity to be successful in school and in life.

“The frustration level for our kids is not something that we should tolerate, but the inability to read is not something that we should tolerate either,” he said.

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