It used to be fairly simple to talk with parents about how promotion and retention decisions were made in North Carolina. Except for high school students, whose grade classification is based on the number and type of course credits earned, our Public School Law (G.S. 115C) gave school principals sole authority over how students were “classified” or assigned to a grade. Principals were expected to make this decision thoughtfully, considering factors like classroom work, standardized test scores, teacher recommendations and other relevant information. If parents were worried that their child might be retained, they were often advised to meet with the principal and share their concerns with the hope of influencing that decision. This is still good information, unless your child is in third grade.
Recent changes in North Carolina’s Public School Law (2012-142, s. 7A.1) offer some good, bad and not-so-bad news. Let’s discuss them in that order.
Good News: The North Carolina Read to Achieve Program is intended to put intense focus on effective reading instruction in the early grades (K-3) as a means of increasing academic achievement long term. It has a goal of ensuring that “every child is reads at or above grade level by the end of 3rd grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that she or he can read, comprehend, integrate and apply complex text needed for secondary education and career success.”
The positive purposes of this legislation are that (1) difficulty with reading development is identified as early as possible; (2) students receive appropriate instructional and support services to address difficulty with reading development and to remediate reading deficiencies; and (3) each student and his or her parent or guardian be continuously informed of the student’s academic needs and progress. So far, so good.
Bad News: In addition to the purposes listed above, the purpose of this law is to determine that progression from one grade to another be based, in part, upon proficiency in reading. More specifically, the State Board of Education must now require that a student be retained in third grade if they fail to demonstrate third grade level reading comprehension skills on a State-approved standardized test. Even though this law allows for certain specific “good cause exemptions” from mandatory retention, the Superintendent will now make the final promotion/retention decision. The Principal can only make a written recommendation to the Superintendent if they determine that a student qualifies for a good cause exemption and should be promoted.
Not-so-bad News: Students who are retained under this law will be given the option of attending a 6-8 week “summer reading camp.” At the end of the camp the students will be tested again and will be promoted to 4th grade if they demonstrate grade-level skills, either on that test or through a reading portfolio. If they do not improve their reading skills to that level, they will repeat 3rd grade with a possibility of being promoted mid-year if the are able to reach grade level by November 1st. Retained students will be provided with intensive reading instruction. Those students who are given a good cause exemption will also receive instructional supports and reading interventions appropriate for their age and reading level.
Students with disabilities can be considered for a good cause exemption if they have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that calls for reading interventions and the use of alternative assessments when they participate in the state testing program. If your child is below grade level with her reading skills, make sure that there is a reading goal on her IEP. Whether or not she has an IEP, you should monitor your child’s reading progress closely and ask questions if you feel that her skills are developing too slowly. Maybe something different needs to happen. Some children have disabilities, such as an intellectual disability, that make it unrealistic to expect grade level academic skills. However, it is extremely important that every child be provided the appropriate type and amount of instruction that will allow them to reach their fullest potential. North Carolina’s public school laws no longer mention “full potential” but, like most parents, that will always be my goal for each child.