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The need to achieve: Western counties work to satisfy state law, get young readers on track

coverCarson Angel is excited to show off her reading skills as she waits outside East Franklin Elementary for her mom to pick her up. From the pile of hand-colored posters, worksheets and drawings at her feet, the 8-year-old picks out a small book made of quartered computer paper to read out loud. 

“We had to choose six animal facts and write them into sentences,” she explains. Each sentence is chockfull of everything you’d ever want to know about tigers. Carson had been a little too shy to read anything in front of her peers for the last-day-of-camp reading talent show, but one-on-one she’s all about it.  

“I’ll be honest with you, I was not happy about summer reading,” Carson’s mom Wendy says when she arrives. “I really wasn’t. But this has been a blessing to have Carson ready for fourth grade.”

The summer program at East Franklin, like hundreds of others around the state, was the product of a state law passed in 2012. The Read to Achieve law declared that all third graders who did not pass a standardized end-of-grade test, called the EOG, or an alternative reading test would have to attend a summer reading camp. According to the original law, any student who did not attend camp or attended but didn’t test as proficient by the end would be held back from fourth grade. 

Wendy didn’t anticipate that she or her daughter would have to worry about any of that. 

“I did not expect her to not do well, and when she didn’t do well I was not prepared for that,” Wendy said. 

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But Carson was not alone. There are all sorts of reasons a child might fail the test that have little to do with reading ability — learning disabilities, learning English as a second language or simple lack of attention span, for starters.  In Macon County, 14 children had to come to summer reading camp to work toward advancing to the fourth grade. That number was 30 in Jackson County, 20 in Swain County and 47 in Haywood County. Numbers for each district varied depending on demographics, schools and how many children were enrolled in each county. 


Tracking the law

North Carolina’s new Read to Achieve law isn’t quite as clear-cut as fail-a-test, attend-a-camp. The law passed in 2012, but legislators were making changes to it up until June of this year, when many reading camps were already in session. 

“It’s almost like we’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” said Terri Hollifield, Title I director for Jackson County Schools. 

No one really knew how Read to Achieve would come together, because the pieces weren’t even all in place at the time the law’s implementation began. For instance, instead of passing the EOG, the original law stated that students could instead demonstrate proficiency through a portfolio. The portfolio would consist of three pieces for each of 12 reading standards, a total of 36. Each piece includes a reading passage and a series of multiple-choice questions at the end. 

The problem? It took a while for those passages to be developed. Teachers didn’t even get them until January, leaving just a few short months to feed students the 36 tedious worksheets. That meant a lot of cramming, and desire for a safety net in case of a failed EOG come springtime meant that a lot of students had to work at the passages who probably should never have been given them. 

“I can see from a district perspective on how they would want to give everybody a chance to build a portfolio, but some children just weren’t ready for it,” said Carolyn Guthrie, director of K-3 literacy for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. 

The vision, Guthrie said, was for teachers to have these passages as another tool to help students they felt could read on grade level but might not do well on the EOG. Instead, they got a bad name as equating to 36 more tests. 

While teachers were trying to contend with working in the reading passages in double time, more changes were afoot. As the DPI worked to make the law into a set of rules school districts could implement, they found more and more things that needed to be changed.

One change that gave educators a lot of relief was the introduction of an alternative assessment. Provided that the district board of education verified their validity and the state board approved them, districts could come up with other ways besides the EOG and Read to Achieve test, given to third-graders who failed the EOG, for students to demonstrate proficiency. 

That’s the test that Carson passed, and the alternative format might have been what made the difference, her mother said. At three hours long, the end-of-year test can be a doozy, especially for an 8-year-old. Though Swain County didn’t use any kind of alternative assessment, Macon, Jackson and Haywood counties all used the Reading 3D alternative assessment for their struggling students. 

“I think it was that the reading part was too long and she lost attention,” Wendy said. “This test was broken up differently.”

Reading 3D breaks testing up into segments and involves the student reading a passage out loud to a teacher before completing some written comprehension questions. 

Changes to Read to Achieve have also allowed some flexibility as to how reading camp is scheduled. The original law said it had to be at least six weeks long, four or five days per week and include at least three hours of instruction each day. 

“When the new law came out it said they had to be 72 hours in length and at least three weeks long, so it gave districts flexibility,” Guthrie said. 

Another big change that came through at the last minute — literally, as summer school students were already in the midst of reading camp — was a revision of who exactly had to pass. The General Assembly’s latest decision ushered in some new exemptions for students with disabilities. For example, students with legitimate disabilities that set them at least two years behind grade level in reading no longer had to pass the test and therefore did not have to attend camp. 

Though, technically, nobody else did, either. Another change made it a parent’s choice whether to send their child to camp and said that, while the testing outcome would be a big factor in deciding whether a child would move on to fourth grade, promotion would be a joint decision of the principal and teacher.

“There’s a whole lot of administrator discretion because they know the students and they know what they feel will be best,” said Jackie Smith, director of accountability for Swain County Schools. 

Educators had decried the original law as one-size-fits-all, and while they still have some issues with the current form, in general the reaction is positive.

“The original design was horrible. It was just horrible,” said Bill Nolte, associate superintendent at Haywood County Schools. “I think more reasonable minds probably prevailed in the end, and we got something that from our perspective is pretty good. We got an opportunity to extend learning for our students who have the most difficulty learning, and that was funded by the state.”

Each district implemented the program a little differently, working to design something that wouldn’t seem like drudgery but would still somehow get lagging students up to that magic scale score. 


Macon County 

Macon County emphasized a camp-like atmosphere in planning its program. Students did reading work in intensive small groups, but there was also a lot of movement, recess twice a day, drawings for prizes and on the last day of camp, an afternoon of fun. Ice cream, a dramatic reading of Eric Carl’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the chance to pet a goat — while also watching teachers and Superintendent Chris Baldwin kiss that goat — were all part of the post-test celebration. 

“They all know they’re here because they’re struggling with reading,” said Diane Cotton, literacy specialist for Macon County Schools. “Some of them are aware of the test. None of them seem to be stressed. They’re all running around and playing and excited about what they’re doing.”

Asked whether reading camp was more like working or more like playing, students replied that it was kind of both before pulling out their portfolios of words and drawings to share. 

Of course, plenty of work did happen during camp. Classrooms were hung with story maps and lists of reading strategies. For four weeks, buses picked students up from their homes and brought them to camp four days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., ending with an end-of-camp test July 24. They spent the time meeting with their teachers in small groups, working on phonics, practicing taking notes by placing sticky-note summaries on each page of their books. 

The camp included more than just the 14 students the school district was required to invite, too. Because of the last-minute changes to who would be required to pass, Macon, like many other counties, wound up with some empty spots. They invited other students who could also use some work on reading and ended up with 37 campers. 


Jackson County

The scene in a Smoky Mountain Elementary School classroom last week was a far cry from the goat-kissing, ice-cream eating celebration that followed the end-of-camp test at East Franklin. With the latest end date of the four counties in The Smoky Mountain News’ coverage area, Jackson County’s last summer reading program doesn’t end until Aug. 7, with the Blue Ridge School program finishing up a week earlier on July 31. 

And also unlike Macon’s, the Jackson program is divided among different locations throughout the county, with separate programs at Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain and a consolidated program of the other three schools at Cullowhee Valley. Buses pick students up from their homes. Jackson County spread its summer camp out to six weeks but does only half a day — 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. — at a time. 

Last Thursday, the three students reporting to Smoky Mountain Elementary were hard at work, rotating between one-on-one time with teacher Leslie Buchanan and work with a computer reading program. 

“We’re all over the room,” Buchanan said. “We aren’t just sitting at that table all day long.”

Today, work focused on a Time for Kids article about Helen Keller. From that, students worked on skills such as separating interesting details from important details and coming up with text evidence. For example, Buchanan asked the students to tell her about some characteristics that describe Keller — and then asked them how they knew. Sure, she’s brave. But what in the text tells you that she’s brave?

“I really feel like we’re helping,” Buchanan said. “We talk about the summer slump a lot and I really feel like this is going to help that not happen.”

Her students haven’t taken their end-of-camp test yet, but she’s already seeing improvements. Though still a good ways away from the reading level they need to reach to pass, the students have all improved from where they were at the beginning of camp. 

“With such a small group, you really can get some work done,” Hollifield said. 

John McCollough, whose son Mai-Pai attends the Smoky Mountain camp, agrees. Though the district offers a school bus, John picks his son up from school every day, and he doesn’t mind doing it. 

“His improvement is noticeable,” John said, “and I believe we should always encourage any kind of enhancement of their skill level.”

Mai-Pai enjoys math and does well there, but he’s not so much into the reading, John said. 

“It has too much words,” Mai-Pai said of camp during a snack break. Still, he said, camp doesn’t completely feel like work. It can also feel like play too. 

“He gets up, gets dressed, he’s ready to go in the morning,” his dad said. “He’s like any kid. He’d just as soon play video games or go to the beach, but he’s ready to go.”


Swain County

Swain County has already finished its camps, sent the kids home and scored the test. Though the law’s done some twisting and turning, Swain didn’t much change its format as the law morphed. 

“Our plans were pretty well in place regardless of legislation,” said Mike Treadway, the district’s director of exceptional children. “We were focused on offering something that the kids would find enjoyable, something that would expose them to activities beyond the scope of the normal school year.”

The district aimed for more of a summer camp format, even inviting children from the Department of Parks and Recreation’s day camp to join the 37 children attending through the school. Buses picked children up from the two elementary schools as well as other central community hubs. In all, 68 children attended the summer reading program, housed at Swain Middle School.

Kids got to do fun stuff, but there was also plenty of intense work. Students were put into groups based on ability, with class sizes ranging from four to 10 third-graders per teacher. The four-week camp included a morning of focused reading instruction, 9-11:30 a.m., lunchtime and then an afternoon filled with project-based learning until the day ended at 2 p.m.

Feedback from parents and students was positive, Treadway said, and in the future he’d like to see the program expand even more. 

“We’d like to get more kids involved,” he said. “We’d like to be able to make it even a larger outward bound experience. We didn’t do a great deal of traveling with them and we’d like to be able to do that.” 


Haywood County

For Haywood County, the priority was to use Read to Achieve funds to give students the most focused, tailored instruction possible. Though other counties extended the summer camp invitation to students they weren’t required to offer it to, Haywood kept the invites confined to the 47 students who hadn’t passed the end-of-year reading assessment. 

While each county faced a mandate to put on a reading camp, it was up to them how to design it.

“Our whole goal here was to help as many students reach grade level as possible,” Nolte said, adding, “Our goal was not to take the summer reading program and make it an enhancement and enrichment program for students who are already on grade level.”

Haywood students attending the camp plowed right into summer reading work as soon as the regular school year ended. Administrators wanted to avoid summer camp dovetailing right into the beginning of the new school year, and they were also afraid that once kids and parents got a taste of summer’s freedom from the routine of school it would be hard to reel them back in. 

For four weeks, students came to Clyde Elementary School from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., four days per week. Buses picked kids up from their home schools — parents had to get them that far — and took them to Clyde, the most centrally located school in the system. 

With an average 3:1 student-teacher ratio, small group was the name of the game. Children were divided up based on reading level, with a typical classroom containing six to eight children and two teachers. The day would be a mix of individual, whole group and small group work, though as Nolte pointed out, even the whole group was still a small group. 

Rather than using a hodgepodge of reading passages and storybooks to drill students on reading skills, Haywood used a curriculum called Seeds of Science, a pack of materials that helped students practice reading skills while also learning something. 

“Not only did they come away with better reading skills in terms of decoding the words and comprehending what they read, but they also comprehended something that was actually factual,” Nolte said. 


The report card

To look at it from a strict pass/fail perspective, it might not seem like summer camp made a huge impact. Not many of the kids who took the Read to Achieve test at the end of camp achieved the necessary score to move on to fourth grade. 

In Swain County, just three of the 20 students who took the test passed, and in Haywood County, 17 of 47 students did. In Macon County, two of 14 students tested proficient. Though, interestingly enough, neither of those Macon students passed based on the three-hour state test. They both tested proficient after taking the Reading 3D alternative assessment. Carson was one of them. 

“She did it,” her mother said, relieved. 

But it’s worth pointing out, administrators said, that a standardized scale score is not the be-all-end-all of improvement. Many summer camp students came in reading far below grade level, so they had some serious catching up to do. Others had learning disabilities or other impairments. Still others were learning English as a second language, so they had a barrier to overcome that their classmates didn’t. But regardless, nearly everybody made improvements. 

“It was a struggle, but they all showed growth so we are very pleased with that,” Cotton said, “And some of them showed significant growth and came very close to passing it.”

In Swain County, Smith said, 14 of the 20 tested students showed improvement. Haywood and Macon counties also reported high rates of improvement even among students who didn’t end up passing. 

“In my opinion, the camp definitely was helpful,” Smith said. “In the short amount of time they were able to come they might not have produced the overall results it would have had it gone longer, but it definitely helped bridge the gap between where the child performed in the spring and the reading goal they are ultimately trying to attain.”

Teachers and administrators who know the child have the final say in what happens to those who didn’t pass, but most will find themselves in a transitional classroom next year. Meaning, they’ll be learning fourth grade material in other subject areas but will spend 90 minutes per day working on reading. 

In late October, they’ll take the test again to see if they will be able to become full-fledged fourth-graders. 

“During that extra 90 minutes a day we will keep providing that extra differentiated instruction they need,” Cotton said. 


Why third grade?

Few will argue that reading is a necessary skill to move forward in the world, but some educators say Read to Achieve’s emphasis is misplaced. If a child is having trouble with reading, intervention should start well before third grade. 

“I think it should come much earlier,” Hollifield said. “Developmentally, that’s when they need it. If they wait until third grade it’s almost a little too late.”

Though testing falls in the third grade, Read to Achieve isn’t all about the 8 to 9 age group, Guthrie says. Rather, third grade is akin to the end of a race whose starting gun is in kindergarten. 

“You do need to focus in on K, 1 and 2,” she said. “That’s where the focus needs to be, but instructionally if you truly are changing your instruction in K, 1 and 2, the difficulties in third grade are going to be less.”

In addition to the now-infamous Read to Achieve test, the legislation also calls for an entrance exam of sorts for kindergarteners. Nothing to do with paper and pencil — more of an observational assessment in which a teacher takes a student aside one-on-one and asks him to perform tasks like naming letters and pointing out parts of a book. 

“It just gives you a feel for where the children are when they start into kindergarten in North Carolina so you will know where to start with them,” Guthrie said. “Read to Achieve is all about looking back at these K, 1 and 2 grades, identifying where children are early and what those children need.” 

Of course, that whole steady pace of work approach did nothing for third-grade teachers this year, who found themselves trying to get students up to standard based on ever-changing laws and a packet of sample reading passages that weren’t even released till after Christmas. And though Hollifield agrees that the intent of the legislation is on track, she’s not sure that the pressure will ever truly shift from third-grade teachers with the system as it is now. 

“I agree with what they’re saying. I think what I’m opposed to is I know the third-grade teachers are feeling like so much has come down on them,” Hollifield said, adding, “I think third grade has become that grade that nobody wants to teach, and that’s not OK.” 

There’s also social stigma to consider, Moss said. A child held back in first grade might not really know what’s happening or feel bad about himself because of it, but a third grader is likely to be fully aware. 

“By third grade, kids are cognizant of the social stigma,” Moss said.

Haywood Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte said teachers try to identify kids who could benefit from repeating a grade well before the end of third grade, with most retentions happening in kindergarten and first grade. Statewide, about 3 percent of third-graders are held back each year. Before changes to the law offered increased flexibility of testing criteria, that number could have multiplied to 30 percent in some school districts. 

Third grade is a logical cut-off though, Guthrie said, because it’s the turning point at which curriculum shifts from learning to read to reading to learn. A student with marginal reading skills might get along OK in first and second grade, but by fourth grade she really needs to have her reading skills down to succeed. 

To wit, a 2011 study funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children not reading adequately by third grade will continue to struggle with school. Ultimately, they have a dropout rate that’s four times higher than their peers.

Studies aside, there are plenty of moving parts when it comes to testing, education and future implications. But one fact stays the same, John McCollough said, and it’s the reason why he has no problem bringing his son to as many days of summer camp as Jackson County offers. Like it or not, reading is important. 

“Whenever someone asks me how I learned how to do something,” McCollough said, “I say ‘Because I learned to read.’”

Reporter Becky Johnson contributed to this story.


Dollars and cents 

When the first Read to Achieve law passed the state legislature, district leaders trembled in fear of what an unfunded — or even partially-funded — mandate could do to their less-than-ample budgets. But as it’s now written, districts found themselves able to offer summer camp without tightening the belt in other areas. All districts interviewed were able to offer camp without using any local dollars. Here’s the breakdown of state funding by county:

• Macon County: $53,961 state money 

• Haywood County: $86,316 state money

• Swain: $37,640 state money

• Jackson: $60,000 state money

However, an educator’s wish list for getting the children who Read to Achieve serves on track for success would include more than that.  

“In my ideal world we would have enough staff that we could continue to serve those students with three- to five-student intervention groups,” said Diane Cotton, literacy specialist for Macon County Schools, “but losing our assistants, it’s getting to where it’s almost impossible to have those small groups.”

Due to budget cuts, there aren’t any teaching assistants in second and third grade at Macon County schools, and first grade teachers typically have to share assistants between them. Kindergarten teachers do have assistants. 

Some districts are looking for new solutions to make the most out of the staff they do have, such as Jackson County’s move to the Daily 5, a teaching strategy for reading that has students move between stations independently so the teacher can pull small groups throughout the day. 

“We have a greater need for more small groups because not only our struggling readers, our advanced readers need to have small groups so they can improve,” said Terri Hollifield, Title 1 director for Jackson County Schools. “We don’t want them to get stagnant.”


How it shook out

Haywood County: 

• 535 third graders

• 47 needing summer camp to work toward grade level

• 17 proficient at the end of summer camp

Jackson County: 

• 280 third graders

• 30 needing summer camp to work toward grade level

• Summer camp still in progress 

Macon County: 

• 330 third graders

• 14 needing summer camp to work toward grade level

• 2 proficient at the end of summer camp

Swain County: 

• 146 third graders

• 20 needing summer camp to work toward grade level

• 3 proficient at the end of summer camp

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