Is Read to Achieve Making the Grade? An Assessment of North Carolina’s Elementary Reading Proficiency Initiative

Context

In 2012, in an effort to increase elementary reading achievement in North Carolina, and to end a de facto policy of “social promotion” that places more emphasis on age than on demonstrated proficiency, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that required the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to develop and implement a program to support on-grade reading mastery for all 3rd grade students. The initiative is commonly referred to as Read to Achieve (RtA).

The RtA policy provides multiple supports for students who do not demonstrate reading proficiency by the end of 3rd grade, including an optional reading camp between the 3rd and 4th grade years. For students who do not become proficient by the end of the summer, supports include supplemental tutoring and enhanced reading instruction during the next school year. Implementation occurs at the school district level but is funded primarily by the state.

After five full years of implementation,1 has the investment been worth it? The history of 3rd and 4th grade End-of-Grade (EOG) reading scores has not been promising, with test scores either remaining relatively flat (4th grade) or even slightly declining (3rd grade) since the start of the program; however, global measures like those may hide important gains for the 3rd and 4th graders most directly impacted by the policy.

To begin to uncover the academic impacts of RtA, this report presents analyses of 4th and 5th grade reading test scores for the state’s traditional public school students who first experienced the RtA initiative as 3rd grade students during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.

Student Outcomes One and Two Years after Initial Read to Achieve Identification

Causal Effect of Initial Identification on Student Reading Performance

Our initial analyses include all students originally impacted by the initiative—that is, all students who do not demonstrate proficiency in reading on their first 3rd grade EOG. These students are eligible for RtA services between 3rd and 4th grade, but only some end up being retained (those who do not demonstrate proficiency even after exposure to the supports and before the start of 4th grade).

The improvements in EOG scores for these initially identified students both one year and two years after identification are not statistically different from the improvements in EOG scores of comparison students who receive no RtA services. Entering the RtA process after completion of the 3rd grade EOG and before enrollment in 4th grade does not appear to have had an impact on the first two cohorts of RtA students.

Causal Effect of Retention on Student Reading Performance

Our second set of analyses include only students who are identified as retained at the start of what would have been their 4th grade year—that is, students who do not demonstrate proficiency in reading after interventions between the 3rd grade EOG and the start of the next school year.

Results of these analyses also suggest that there are no significantly different outcomes for this group, one or two years later, compared to outcomes for students who just missed identification and received no additional services.

Effects for Student Sub-groups

Our analyses also considered the impact of the policy on sub-groups of students—for example, students from lower-income families, male and female students, and students from different ethnic groups. Even looking at results for these sub-groups, however—whether just initially identified or eventually retained—there still does not appear to be any effect.

Reading Camps

One key component of the policy—participating in reading camp between the 3rd and 4th grade years—is not mandatory. As a result, each year, a large proportion of students who are eligible for RtA services are not exposed to one of its major interventions. We compared outcomes for students who attended reading camps to outcomes for students who were eligible for reading camps but did not attend. As was true in all of the other analyses, participation in a reading camp does not appear to make a difference in subsequent test scores.

Moving Forward: What the State Can Do Next

One reason for the general lack of overall progress may be the significant gaps between the RtA policy (such as the policy’s broad definition of reading proficiency and the assumptions it makes about the statewide availability of high-quality reading teachers) and several aspects of on-the-ground implementation realities (such as differences across school districts in program offerings and staff capacity, or variations in the services offered to retained students). To strengthen the program, the state should: 1) consider providing the financial and human capacity supports necessary to improve implementation fidelity statewide; 2) identify and scale up local-level implementations with strong evidence of success; and, ultimately, 3) consider transitioning from a 3rd grade social promotion mindset to a literacy development mindset that spans all education settings leading up to and including 3rd grade.

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