RALEIGH — At the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee held on Nov. 29 lawmakers heard from various officials representing K-12 and the state community college system.
The Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee (JLEOC) is co-chaired by Sen. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke) and outgoing Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga). The agenda included presentations by the N.C. Department of Public Education (NCDPI) that focused mainly on reading achievement in K-12.
A summary of activity involving legislation titled the Excellent Public Schools Act 2021-22 was given by NCDPI Deputy Superintendent Michael Maher and Amy Rhyne, director of the Office of Early Learning.
The Excellent Public Schools Act made changes to the state’s Read to Achieve legislation by requiring the use of the Science of Reading, which has a phonics emphasis, for literacy instruction in North Carolina K-12 school districts.
The Science of Reading is defined in the legislation as “evidenced-based reading instruction practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.”
N.C. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt was a vocal proponent of the Excellent Public Schools Act’s use of the Science of Reading.
In a May 2021 interview with North State Journal, Truitt said literacy rates are “a crisis” nationwide. She also stated “67% of eighth graders in North Carolina are not reading or doing math proficiently when they start high school, and that statistic is average in the U.S.”
Read to Achieve, passed by the General Assembly almost a decade ago, required all third grade students to be assessed for proficiency in reading at the beginning of that grade level. If students are found to not be proficient, Read to Achieve has layers of interventions and assessments that continue throughout grade three. Any student still not presenting as proficient by the beginning of grade four is either placed in remediation or may face grade level retention.
The program being used by NCDPI to support the Excellent Public Schools Act is called LETRS. The current school year is the first year the program is being used in classrooms.
Maher and Rhyne’s presentation included data sets for reading proficiency in the grades leading up to third grade. Overall, scores declined dramatically during the pandemic school year of 2020-21, however, scores began to bounce back in the 2021-22 school year.
First grade reading proficiency dropped significantly, going from 71% in 2018-19 to 38% in 2020-21. Those scores rose to 61% in the 2021-22 school year.
Data for second graders showed a very similar drop during the pandemic and a similar recovery rate, however, the rate of third graders testing proficient in reading prior to the pandemic was far lower than the two earlier grade levels.
According to Rhyne, only 57% of third grade students tested as proficient in 2018-19. During the pandemic year, that rate dropped to 43% and has only inched up to 47% during the 2021-22 school year.
As far as the various assessments of reading proficiency levels by race or disability, all groups saw recovery increases but only two groups surpassed a 50% proficiency rate: Asians (61%) and whites (58%). Students with disabilities and English language learners fared the worst at 17% and 18%, respectively.
During the meeting, Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) put Maher on the spot by asking when they would be seeing the vast majority of students reading at proficient levels. Maher said that was a “great question” and his team would get back to the committee about it.
Torbett chairs another education-related committee, the House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future, that is exploring ways to improve the state’s education system. Torbett has said a final report is likely to be ready by the committee’s next meeting in December which he teased to include everything from teacher pay to school calendars as well as “realigning” the state superintendent’s duties and recommendations for handling school safety.
Torbett, in a likely reference to Read to Achieve’s goal of raising reading proficiency, said “We’ve been talking this for a long, long time,” and asked for assurances from Maher on just when he thinks third graders will see results.
Maher responded by reminding the committee that training thousands of teachers in LETRS and the Science of Reading is an ongoing process, but he also said the impact of the programs will be known when this year’s kindergarteners start third grade.
An additional presentation on schools that “Lead Networked Improvement Communities” was delivered by NCDPI’s Deputy State Superintendent Robert Taylor and Julie Marks, director of evaluation and senior research associate for the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina (EPIC), UNC Public Policy.
Taylor and Marks gave an update on the pilot program networking educators to collaboratively solve educational and school issues. The goal is to determine best practices that can be shared with the district or even statewide.
Taylor is departing his role at NCDPI to become state superintendent in Mississippi starting in January.
Presentations were also given related to North Carolina’s Community College System; one on the NC Promise tuition program and another on NC Community Colleges’ Organizational Assessment and Climate Survey.
NC Promise began in 2018 and offers in-state residents tuition at $500 a semester. Nonresidents are offered a rate of $2,500 a semester. Schools in the program have all seen varying degrees of increased enrollment, including Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina. Fayetteville State has recently been added to the NC Promise program.