RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Far fewer North Carolina third-graders in public schools have demonstrated reading proficiency, compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, a troubling finding that state educators said needs to be urgently addressed.
A report presented this week to the State Board of Education showed almost one-third of third-graders had not met promotion standards last school year and were therefore “retained,” even after getting the chance to improve their reading scores by attending summer reading camps already offered to students, news outlets reported.
The “retained” label on nearly 35,000 students means they are either repeating third grade this fall or receiving specific kinds of fourth-grade class instruction. They’ll be designated as retained until they meet reading standards.
The most recent third-grade retention rate rose to 31% compared to 15.5% for the 2017-18 school year and 17.7% for the following year. No state exams were given during the 2019-20 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The higher retention rates come as only 43.7% of third-grade students demonstrated reading proficiency.
The results follow previously announced data that showed a majority of public school students taking standardized state exams in reading, math and science failed them last school year, which was marked by limited in-person instruction due to the pandemic.
“It goes without saying our earliest learners took a hard hit during this pandemic, and now more than ever we have to ensure there’s a solid plan in place to support the gaps that have been created during this time,” said Amy Rhyne, director of the Department of Public Instruction’s early learning and reading office.
For several years, the state has carried out the “Read to Achieve” program, which is designed to get all children at proficient reading levels by the end of third grade. The program has included summer reading camps for children in grades one to three. Test scores have remained stubbornly low, so the legislature this year approved significant changes to the initiative, including new reading instruction training for K-5 teachers.
This week’s report also showed that most eligible students for summer reading camps still didn’t attend them this past summer. About 54,000 first- through third-graders attended the camps, or just one-third of the approximately 157,000 eligible.
The report figures increase the sense of urgency among education leaders to improve early-grade literacy before these poor skills cause students to fall behind further in other subjects.
“There’s nothing fair about this,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said. “It’s not fair to our students, it’s not fair to our teachers.”
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