Education Legislative Committee hears updates on K-3 reading, community college instruction

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt speaks Tuesday, August 24, 2021, in Raleigh, NC, as Senate Republicans proposed a measure that would restrict how teachers can discuss race concepts in the classroom. Truitt supports the measure and isn’t concerned it will cause prospective educators to leave the job market. (AP Photo/Bryan Anderson)

RALEIGH — At the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee held Nov. 29, lawmakers heard from various officials representing K-12 and the state community college system.

That Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee (JLEOC) is co-chaired by Senator Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke) and outgoing Senator Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga). The agenda included presentations from the NC Department of Public Education (NCDPI) that focused primarily on reading achievement in K-12.

A summary of activities related to legislation entitled 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 applied some changes to the state’s read-to-achieve legislation by mandating the use of the science of reading, which has an emphasis on phonetics, for literacy instruction in North Carolina’s K-12 school districts.

The science of reading is defined in the legislation as “evidence-based teaching practices in reading that deal with the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonetics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language and comprehension, which can be differentiated to meet needs to become by individual students.”

NC State Superintendent Catherine Truitt has been a vocal advocate of using the science of reading in the Excellent Public Schools Act.

in one Interview May 2021 With the North State Journal, Truitt said the literacy rate is “a crisis” nationwide. She also said, “67% of eighth graders in North Carolina can’t read or do math well when they start high school, and that statistic is about average for the United States.”

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Read to Achieve, passed by the General Assembly nearly a decade ago, required all third-grade students to be tested for reading at the beginning of that grade. If students are found to be incompetent, Read to Achieve provides multiple levels of interventions and assessments that continue throughout third grade. Any student who still does not present as competent by the start of fourth grade will either be placed on the touch-up or may be faced with grade retention.

The program used by NCDPI to support the Excellent Public Schools Act is called LETRS. The current school year is the first year in which the program is used in the classroom.

Maher and Rhynes presentation contain records of reading literacy at grade levels through third grade. Overall, scores fell dramatically during the 2020-21 school year of the pandemic, but scores began to recover in the 2021-22 school year.

First grade reading literacy declined significantly, increasing from 71% in 2018-19 to 38% in 2020-21. Those numbers rose to 61% in the 2021-22 school year.

Data for second graders showed a very similar decline during the pandemic and a similar recovery rate, however, the rate of third graders testing literacy before the pandemic was far lower than the previous two grade levels.

According to Rhyne, only 57% of third graders tested competent in 2018-19. During the pandemic year, that rate dropped to 43% and rose to just 47% in the 2021-22 school year.

Across the various ratings of reading literacy by race or disability, all groups saw an improvement in recovery, but only two groups exceeded a 50% literacy rate: Asian (61%) and White (58%). Disabled students and English learners performed the worst at 17% and 18%, respectively.

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During the meeting, Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) put Maher to the point by asking when they would see the vast majority of students reading at a proficient level. Maher said it was a “great question” and his team will be reaching out to the committee on the matter.

Torbett chairs another education-related committee, the House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future, which is looking for ways to improve the state education system. Torbett said a final report will likely be ready by the committee’s next meeting in December, which will include everything from teachers’ salaries to school calendars, as well as the “realignment” of the state superintendent’s duties and recommendations for dealing with school safety.

Torbett, in a likely nod to Read to Achieve’s goal of improving reading literacy, said, “We’ve talked about this for a long, long time,” and asked Maher for reassurances on 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 would be known by the time this year’s Kindergarteners entered third go to class

An additional presentation on Schools Leading Connected Improvement Communities was given by Robert Taylor, Assistant State Superintendent, NCDPI, and Julie Marks, Evaluation Manager and Senior Research Associate for the Education Policy Initiative in Carolina (EPIC), UNC Public Policy.

Taylor and Marks provided information on the pilot program to connect educators to solve educational and school problems together. The goal is to identify best practices that can be shared with the district or even nationally.

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Taylor is leaving his position at NCDPI to become State Superintendent in Mississippi starting in January.

There were also presentations on North Carolina’s community college system; one on the NC Promise study program and another on the NC Community Colleges Organizational Assessment and Climate Survey.

Founded in 2018, NC Promise offers state residents $500 per semester in tuition. Nonresidents are offered a rate of $2,500 per semester. All of the schools in the program saw varying increases in enrollment, including Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina. Fayetteville State was recently accepted into the NC Promise program.

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