North Carolina’s contested “Read to Achieve” program was a central talking point during the monthly meeting of the Ashe County Board of Education on Jan. 13.
“It’s a nightmare, it’s an injustice, but it’s also a state law,” Phil Howell, director of curriculum for Ashe County Public Schools, said of implementing the program within Ashe schools.
Read to Achieve, part of the Excellent Public Schools Act, was passed by the state legislature in July 2012 and put into affect at the start of the 2013-2014 school year.
According the information released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI), the law requires all third grade students to take and pass an end-of-grade exam (EOG) in order to advance to fourth grade.
“I think it had good intentions,” Ashe County School superintendent Dr. Todd Holden said of boosting student interest in reading, “but I think what will happen is just the opposite. Instead of getting kids interested in reading, you’re going to shut them off from reading.”
Students who do not pass the reading exam, the EOG retake or alternate exam, are required to enroll in a six-week summer reading camp. Those students who do not attend summer school will not be considered proficient at the end of the six weeks and will be considered “retained” in third grade, but will attend fourth grades classes.
Holden said his concerns stretched beyond the effect the law would have on the students directly impacted.
“This is burdening our third grade kids, I think that this is burdening our third grade teachers and I think it’s burdening our system,” Holden said, adding that students who take the six week reading course in the summer will essentially “be in school all year.”
Howell said the implementation of Read to Achieve involves student portfolios, which the law describes as “a compilation of independently produced student work selected by the student’s teacher, and signed by the teacher and principal,” and is intended to demonstrate the student’s mastery in 12 different benchmarks set by the state.
“[These portfolios] are primarily all that third grade teachers are going to be able to get done,” Howell said. “It’s going to be overwhelming for them to do this portfolio process this semester and not lose direct instruction time.”
Howell said that concerns have been raised statewide over the “readability” of the portfolio passages.
A portfolio reading passage is selected from an approved set of secure text passages, based on grade-three reading standards, provided to each school system from DPI.
“When the portfolio was originally discussed, [the reading passages] were describe as one page to two pages,” Jamie Little, Ashe K-6 Curriculum Coordinator said. “When I got the portfolio, the lowest number was two pages, up to seven pages.”
Each passage is followed by five questions, four of which the student must answer correctly in order to be considered proficient.
“I have a third grader who I feel is a pretty good reader, and on any given night she could miss more than one question,” Jennifer Robinson, Westwood Elementary School principal said.
David Blackburn, principal at Mountain View Elementary said that his third grade teachers have already put in extra time, arriving early in school, in order to deal with the logistics of the portfolios.
“My teachers earnestly asked to lengthen the school day because they are so overwhelmed by trying to get this done and to do right by the kids,” Blue Ridge Elementary School principal Callie Grubb said.
Holden presented the board with a resolution written by the Rowan County School system directed towards DPI stating its similar concerns regarding Read to Achieve. The board approved Dr. Holden’s request to draft a resolution from the Ashe County School system encouraging DPI to consider alternative assessments and standards to those dictated in the state law.
“Based on what the principals have said, this is a resolution we should support,” board member Dr. Lee Beckworth said before the resolution was unanimously approved by the board.
Voucher lawsuit updated
Holden presented an update to the board on a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s voucher program brought by the N.C. State Boards Association.
The Boards Association has requested that county school boards sign on to the lawsuit, which Holden said 12 districts are considering, including Watauga and Avery.
“They feel utilizing public tax dollars for private school use is in violation of the North Carolina constitution,” Holden said of the law, which funds low-income students with money from public taxes to attend private school.
Holden, who said he didn’t see how being a part of the lawsuit would benefit Ashe at this point, consulted with the school board attorney who advised that signing on to the lawsuit may upset pro-voucher groups in Raleigh.
Beckworth expressed concerns over the legality of the situation, but said he believes “this law is harmful to public schools in North Carolina.”
The board took no action to join the lawsuit, and Holden said he would keep members aware of the situation as it develops.
In other actions taken by the board:
• Approved request from Ashe County High Beta Club for an overnight trip to attend the N.C. State Convention in Greensboro later this month.
• Approved request from Ashe County High AP US History, AP Government and AP Politics and European History for an overnight trip to Montpelier, Monticello and Appomattox in April 2014.
• Approved an early graduation request from student Josh Baldwin and approved all personnel recommendations.
• Approved a request from Holden to apply for a workforce development grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to fund career coaching and possibly paid internships for the high school.
• Heard from Phyllis Yates, associate superintendent, regarding the 2014-15 budget planning process, which is underway. Yates will be sending information out to principals and directors shortly.
• Heard from Holden that incidents of bullying in school can now be reported online through the Ashe County Schools website.
• In attendance were superintendent Dr. Todd Holden, Board Members Polly Jones, Dr. Lee Beckworth, Terry Williams, vicechairman C.B. Jones, Jr. and chairman Charles King.
The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 and will be held in the commons area of the Ashe County High School following the annual recognition of Teacher of the Year nominees, Principal of the Year and National Board recipients.