North Carolina school districts won approval Thursday to administer their own versions of third-grade reading tests in hopes of avoiding a lengthy series of shorter tests. Superintendents said those mini-tests could consume chunks of teaching time this spring.
The mini-tests were offered as a solution because of a feared classroom bottleneck in meeting a state law requiring third-graders prove their reading meets standards for their age before promotion. About 65 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders last year read below proficiency levels on a national exam considered more difficult than recent statewide reading tests.
The State Board of Education approved the local proposals Thursday.
"The approval of these alternative assessments is one of the tools in the tool kit for demonstrating promotion to fourth grade," state schools superintendent June Atkinson said.
The 2012 law taking effect this academic year describes several ways schools can make sure students have a good grasp of reading and can advance to fourth grade. One method involves teachers giving students as many as 36 mini-tests.
Though the mini-tests were one of several options to prove reading proficiency, some school districts planned run all third-graders through the series to avoid the cost and schedule disruptions of big groups of students facing a 6- to 8-week summer reading camp or a test next fall.
The Kannapolis school board estimated that third-grade teachers would devote more than 30 percent of their total classroom time over the rest of this academic year prepping and examining students with the mini-tests. Ashe County's school board warned that failing to allow local testing alternatives would force its third-grade teachers to devote 80 hours of classroom instruction time to reading work.
The state school board first approved a request by about 30 North Carolina school districts that asked approval to use their own reading tests on the conditions that local boards attest the exams reliably demonstrate third-grade reading comprehension. The state board then allowed all 115 school districts in the state the same option of a local test if they followed the same conditions.
"We still have the opportunity with some children to use the other options such as passing the end of grade, beginning of grade tests, or if the teacher decides to use the portfolio then those options are still available," Atkinson said.
As for the type of tests students might see, those still have to adhere to strict regulations and must be approved by the board.
Senate leader Phil Berger championed the state law called Read to Achieve. He and Gov. Pat McCrory issued statements this week defending the law's goals.
"It's imperative that EVERY child regardless of their circumstance is reading at grade level by the third grade," McCrory said in a statement Wednesday. "Illiteracy is a one-way ticket to economic ruin."
But McCrory also urged the state school board to approve alternatives local districts proposed for meeting the reading mandate "to ensure we are not overtesting."