Declining NAEP scores underscore failure of Berger’s Read to Achieve

The latest round of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results were just released, and North Carolina Senator Phil Berger’s scores are not looking very good.  

The NAEP measures math and reading proficiency for 4th and 8th grade students every two years.  I am not a fan of standardized tests, but the scores do provide one data point in evaluating how well Berger’s signature Read to Achieve legislation is doing at moving the needle on reading in our state.

North Carolina’s 4th grade reading proficiency dropped from 39% scoring at or above proficient in 2017 to 36% this year.  Scale scores declined from 224 to 221.

When Read to Achieve was passed in 2012, the legislation was intended to end social promotion and help 3rd graders avoid what Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger called the ‘economic death sentence’ awaiting students who are unable to read proficiently:  

The goal of the State is to ensure that every student read at or above grade level by the end of third grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that he or she can read, comprehend, integrate, and apply complex texts needed for secondary education and career success.

While improving reading outcomes is a worthy goal, it was obvious from the beginning that Read to Achieve lacked the educator’s touch.  The initiative attempted to improve reading by increasing the volume of assessments in grades K-3 and ratcheting up the threats of retention, essentially punishing children for not being able to read well enough in early grades.  It’s not the approach an effective teacher would take.

According to former NC superintendent Dr. June Atkinson, when Read to Achieve was drafted, the Department of Public Instruction was very candid about the challenges it presented and the impact it would have.  

DPI warned the General Assembly that the volume of assessments the legislation added to 3rd grade was too high and that the pace and funding of implementation didn’t provide enough professional development for teachers to effectively transition to the new system.  The General Assembly had also slashed Pre-K funding 25% from pre-recession levels at the time, and DPI informed legislators that quality early childhood education was one of the most important components of building a foundation for literacy.  All of that feedback fell largely on deaf ears.

Berger did sponsor a bill this year which, among other things, would have attempted to identify effective reading approaches going on in North Carolina schools to share on a statewide level.  SB 438 allocated no additional funding and was ultimately vetoed by Governor Cooper, who said “Recent evaluations show that Read to Achieve is ineffective and costly…This legislation tries to put a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed.”

Six years and approximately $200 million wasted taxpayer dollars after the debut of Read to Achieve, this latest round of test scores reinforces what many of us have been saying for years: state legislators need to focus on providing sufficient funding for public education in our state, stop legislating in the classroom, and let the professionals figure out how to get the job done.

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