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Adjustments to NC reading law could save money, send fewer kids to summer camp

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WASHINGTON, N.C. - The North Carolina Board of Education has given local school districts the green light in creating their own reading tests for third graders. Now, 9 On Your Side is digging deeper to find out how it could affect your child's chances of having to go to summer reading camp.

“Read to Achieve” is a new state law that requires all third graders to pass their reading end-of-grade tests before being promoted. If they don't, they must attend a summer reading camp or risk being held back.

 “If we can get these students on grade-level by 3rd grade, it's crucial to their success and independence," Alida Sawyer, reading camp director for Beaufort County, explained this summer.

Beaufort County Schools was the first to test out the camp this summer thanks to a $700,000 federal grant. It went well, but Superintendent Don Phipps says he feels lawmakers underestimated the cost of running the camp.

His concerns grew when requirements of the law kicked in this semester, demanding teachers give some 3rd grade students 36 time-consuming mini-tests on reading passages.
 
"We had really strong students in classrooms with really strong teachers that weren't doing well on these passages,” he says. “And we went back and looked at it and there was a concern about the readability level and the actual questions themselves and that made us question the whole process."

Some school leaders worried the tougher standards would land about half of all 3rd graders in the summer camp, and state board of education members were listening.

On Thursday, they voted to give all districts the power to create their own reading assessments instead. It’s a change Phipps anticipates will lower costs of the camp, keep good readers moving, and give teachers more flexibility in the classroom.

"We’ve reached, I hope, a compromise that's truly a win-win situation for everyone involved," Phipps says.

The Department of Public Instruction must approve any district's alternative to the 36 mini-tests. Phipps hopes to replace them with verbal interactive sessions where students use iPads or laptops to answer comprehension questions.

It’s something his teachers already do, and he believes will be more accurate in determining student reading skills.

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