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NC Read To Achieve summer camps did little for struggling young readers, report says

Union County Public Schools

One in four of North Carolina’s third graders were held back or assigned to special reading classes this year because they couldn’t read at grade level, a new Read To Achieve report says.

And the summer reading camps designed to help them catch up did little good, a state official told the North Carolina Board of Education Wednesday.

Ten years ago the General Assembly approved a Read To Achieve bill that banned what some call social promotion. It mandated that third graders who couldn’t read at grade level had to be retained. Students who can’t read well by the end of third grade often struggle to keep up in all classes as they advance.

Last spring about 47% of the state’s 113,000 third graders passed the state reading exam. That was up from 2021, but still below the pre-pandemic rate of 57%.

About 25,000 who didn’t pass were exempted from retention because they took alternate assessments or had disabilities, according to the annual Read To Achieve report.

That left more than 30,000 eligible for summer reading camp, which all districts must offer as a last-ditch effort to get students on track for fourth grade. Only 13,000 chose to attend, the report says.

First and second graders who are at risk of reading failure are also offered the summer camp option.

Amy Rhyne, director of the state’s Office of Early Learning, said the results were disappointing: 9% of first graders, 8% of second graders and 15% of third graders who attended the summer camps emerged testing at grade level proficiency.

“And those are conversations that we’re already having because those are low proficiencies for the number of students and the money we’re putting into reading camps,” she said.

That left 28,400 students, or a quarter of the class, who had to be retained. Schools have the option of having such students repeat third grade, assigning them to a transitional class, or moving them to fourth grade with a special reading class.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the state’s second-largest district, had the most students retained because of reading scores: 3,156 students, or 29% of all third graders. The report indicates CMS had lower-than-average participation in its summer reading camps, with a proficiency rate below 5% for those who did take part.

Layna Hong

Other districts had higher percentages retained, including Gaston and Lincoln County schools. Those districts also logged below-average proficiency from reading camp participants.

Rhyne said one problem is that the summer reading camps only have to offer 72 hours of instruction.

“We do have highly qualified teachers that are doing the best they can,” she said. “But when you’re looking at 72 hours of instruction to try to close those gaps, that’s almost impossible in a lot of cases.”

The 2022 Read To Achieve report didn’t detail how much districts and the state spent on reading camps. Over the years, North Carolina has spent more than $200 million on various programs to get third graders on track, with little to show for it.

The latest effort involves retraining North Carolina’s pre-K and elementary school teachers to use a program called LETRS to improve classroom instruction. The program, which is commonly known as a science-of-reading approach, offers techniques for teaching such basic skills as phonics, fluency and comprehension.

North Carolina has invested about $60 million in state and federal money in the program, which involves two years of intensive training and is still being rolled out across the state.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt told the board she believes that effort will lead to the substantive long-term progress that has eluded the state so far. Working those supports into the school day is likely to prove more effective than a summer catch-up program, she said.

“This is further proof that remediation doesn’t work,” she said. “It’s acceleration that we need to work on during the school year.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.