Today in North Carolina

New reading law gets better

June 13, 2014 

— The General Assembly did something unusual recently.

Lawmakers admitted to problems with a law enacted in 2012, worked in a bipartisan fashion to amend it and probably saved what is an important, well-meaning initiative from causing more harm than good.

Read to Achieve, Sen. Phil Berger’s initiative to have all public school students reading by the end of third grade, was a much-needed public undertaking.

Why anyone criticizes Berger for trying to ensure that all kids read by the end of third grade is beyond me, especially since I was one of those kids who needed summer school after second grade before all those letters made sense.

Berger’s idea was this: If kids can’t read after third grade, we’ll send them to summer school to learn how. If they still can’t read, they have to repeat third grade.

And how will we know if they can read?

That’s where the problems started.

Standardized testing, the scourge of modern-day education, would determine if kids could read. (Why don’t we just let teachers sit with kids and determine if they can read? Would it kill us to trust teachers as the professionals they truly are?)

Berger’s program essentially turned the second half of third grade into a non-stop testing ordeal. Teachers were furious. Parents were furious. Third-graders were stressed out.

One Raleigh mom told the Senate Education Committee that her third-grade daughter once loved to learn and read. But by the end of this year, the child’s spirit had been diminished and her love of learning extinguished. She suffered from test anxiety and physical ailments related to it.

The 32 hours of testing fried her child and consumed valuable time that could have been spent learning, the mom said.

So the committee rewrote the bill, cutting the testing demands and rearranging the extra summer reading sessions so they are likely to work more practically.

Also, the state will now allow school districts to develop their own reading tests.

Critics of the original bill say the legislature could have gone further. That might be so, because it sounds as if third-graders will still take too many tests. But if this year’s changes reduce the testing by 50 percent, as some expect, that would make a huge difference.

The debate has a political angle. While many North Carolinians with many different pet interests have complained about moves made in the last three legislative sessions, opponents of Read to Achieve have been most successful in forging a fix.

Why might that be? Because North Carolina has about 1.3 million public school children, and that translates into a lot of angry parents. Republicans who have taken a slash-and-burn attitude toward the public schools no doubt figured that out. Many of those angry parents are Republicans, and many are their constituents.

And these lawmakers know that parents will be more loyal to their children than to their legislators on Election Day.

Paul O’Connor wrote “Today in North Carolina” for many years. He’s filling in while the providers of this column find a permanent replacement for Scott Mooneyham.

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