The latest reading results leave room for debate about NC’s investment in the science of reading

Three years ago, big reading gains in fourth graders in Mississippi, North Carolina helped inspire a $50 million investment in a program designed to help educators teach children to read.

Now a new notation from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are in. And pundits continue to debate whether Mississippi’s performance offers hope or a warning for North Carolina.

The NAEP is sometimes referred to as the nation’s testimony. It is designed to provide read and compute performance data that is consistent across state lines and over time. Experts generally warn against using the results to promote or discredit specific programs.

But the 2019 reading gains in Mississippi, after five years of retraining teachers with a reading science program called LETRS, inspired some North Carolina leaders who were frustrated by stagnant performance and persistent racial differences.

“One state has become a model for changing this paradigm: Mississippi,” National Gypsum CEO Tom Nelson said at a 2021 news conference supporting North Carolina’s science of law reading.

The current biennial budget of the state $50 million planned enforce all elementary school teachers LETTERS, This is short for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spell.

But here’s the thing: While Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading growth was noticeable in 2019, it just moved the state, along with North Carolina, from below average to the middle of the pack.

State averages can sometimes be influenced by demographic differences. Comparing the same group, North Carolina’s white fourth graders outperformed Mississippi’s, while Mississippi’s Hispanic and low-income children edged out North Carolina. Competency for black students was similar in both states.

A win or a draw?

The 2021 national exams have been delayed by the pandemic. When a new batch of 2022 scores came along recently releasedNorth Carolina saw a significant drop in reading in fourth grade, while Mississippi did not.

“They didn’t sink. They didn’t go up. And given everything that’s happened with the pandemic, that’s a win,” he said Munro Richardson, Managing Director of Read Charlottea community reading initiative.

Part of his work is sifting through reading data to identify programs that can improve performance at Charlotte Mecklenburg schools. He says Mississippi has important lessons for North Carolina and CMS, and LETRS training is part of the answer.

Sometimes referred to as a phonetics program, LETRS encompasses a broader range of tactics to help children learn to read. These tactics include emphasizing fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Mississippi couples this training with a plethora of literacy coaches assigned to low-scoring schools to ensure teachers know how to put the training into action.

And, Richardson says, “there’s another part of Mississippi history that I don’t think people quite appreciate: They got K-1 right.”

That said, the big jump in fourth-grade results didn’t come until the state reading program was in place for five years, picking up this year’s test-takers as they entered school. Both North Carolina and CMS are already seeing promising signs of reading growth among the youngest students, Richardson says.

“I’m much more optimistic than ever about what’s possible in our community,” he said.

Better learning or higher scores?

But even with the regression in North Carolina, fourth-grade reading skills are still essentially the same as in Mississippi and 35 other states. Thirty-two percent of fourth-graders in North Carolina and 31 percent in Mississippi achieve proficiency. Black, Hispanic, and low-income students in both states continue to lag behind white or non-economically disadvantaged peers.

“Mississippi, fourth grade on the last two Tests, kind of sat in this huge lump of middle,” he said Paul Thomas, a professor of education at Furman University who studies reading instruction. He is skeptical of standardized testing and the national push to embrace the science of reading programs as a solution to America’s reading crisis.

First off, he says the tendency to scream “reading crisis” is overdone.

“In the last 80 years, there hasn’t been a decade, year, or even a day where we’ve said reading performance is okay,” Thomas said.

And he says that policymakers and product providers across the country tend to oversimplify research to further their solutions

“Mississippi has steadily increased its reading performance in fourth grade for nearly three decades,” Thomas said. “It’s not a trivial thing and it’s a perfectly good thing to celebrate.”

He says the mistake is in drawing simple conclusions from this long-term trend or from the sharp improvement seen in 2019 with a range of policies and programs tried and tested over the years.

Educators often talk about the importance of learning to read through third grade so that after that, students can read to learn. Thomas says that teaching phonics and other reading fundamentals can increase early performance with no later gains.

For example, eighth graders in Mississippi fell well below the national average in reading, with only 22% able.

“I call it a mirage because it disappears in eighth grade,” Thomas said. “In other words, it’s not an increase in learning, it’s an increase in test scores.”

North Carolina’s eighth graders were at the bottom end of the scale at 26% reading proficiency and were considered similar to the national average.

Thomas says that giving up patent solutions is not the same as giving up better reading and racial justice. He calls for ensuring that weak readers have smaller classes and experienced teachers, and that society does more to combat poverty.