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A Senate education committee gave favorable votes to a number of important education bills today, including one that will revamp the Read to Achieve program. 

Read to Achieve is a state initiative pushed by the Republican-led General Assembly to make sure children are reading on grade level. But a report from North Carolina State University’s Friday Institute for Educational Innovation found that those who went through the program had little improvement as a result of the intervention.

The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019 tries to revamp the program through the development of specific plans for struggling students, state Department of Public Instruction approval of reading summer camps, more professional development on teaching early literacy, and more. Go here, to read more details about the proposal. 

“Read to Achieve is important. Making sure kids read by the end of third grade is critically important,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the architect of Read to Achieve generally and this legislation specifically. “Read to Achieve is working in some places and needs improvements and adjustments in others.”

Berger said that the bill is the result of collaboration with a variety of people, including state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and members of the State Board of Education. Johnson and State Board Vice Chair Alan Duncan were in attendance at the committee and both spoke in support of the bill. 

Berger said that the bill comes out of analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the program, as well as best practices in districts around North Carolina and in other states. He also emphasized the importance of early reading because of its impact on a students later life. 

“Data shows us that reading comprehension by third grade has major impacts on a student’s future career,” he said, adding that it also has large implications for the success of students in post-secondary education. 

Berger was asked whether recommendations from the Friday Institute were incorporated in the bill. Berger said that people from NC State were included in the creation of the legislation and mentioned again that the assessment from the Friday Institute found mixed results from the program depending on where in the state it was recommended. He said that Individualized Reading Plans are meant to help address that. These are plans that would address the specific reading needs of different students. 

Berger also said that he didn’t believe extra funds, beyond those already allocated for the program by the state, would be needed to implement the changes. 

The committee also took up a bill that would allow graduation from a North Carolina high school to be used as evidence of in-state residence for the purposes of getting in-state tuition to community colleges and universities. This is a crucial ask from the North Carolina Community College System as community colleges around the state have been running into enrollment issues around students who are in-state but don’t meet the usual criteria that determines in-state tuition. 

This evidence allowed by the bill would rebut the presumption that a student’s legal residence is the same as their parents. Additionally, the law as it is currently assumes that if a student is under 24, their residence is their parents’. The bill takes away the age requirement, so that a student of any reasonable age can provide evidence of living independently from their parents to gain in-state tuition.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, sponsored and presented the bill. 

“It simply gets the logjam out of the way and gets the kids in class where they ought to be,” he said. 

Sen. Don Davis, D-Greene, said the bill fixes the problem that lawmakers have been hearing about from community college leaders, including system President Peter Hans.

“This seems to be a great fix, and I know a lot of community colleges are looking for this, and thank you for this bill,” he said. 

Tillman said that the bill does not help undocumented students get in-state tuition. 

The committee also took up a bill to reduce testing in North Carolina, a response to the overwhelming criticism of overtesting in the state. 

Tillman sponsored this bill and said it came about in response to recommendations from Superintendent Johnson. 

The bill would eliminate the NC Final Exams and would also require districts to monitor the number of local tests given and how much time their students spend taking them. If the amount of time is greater than the state average, then the district would have to come up with a plan to reduce local testing to meet the state average. 

The House has its own testing reduction bill: House Bill 377. It would change testing at the K-8 grades by getting rid of end-of-grade tests and replacing them with three shorter tests, dubbed “check-ins” throughout the school year. In high school, the end-of-course tests would be replaced with a national standardized test, like the ACT. NC Final Exams are also nixed under the bill. Local school systems wouldn’t be allowed to add their own standardized tests to the mix as part of this legislation. 

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education is also working on reducing testing. At this month’s meeting, members voted to eliminate the NC Final Exams for science in fourth grade and for social studies in both fourth and fifth grades. 

All of these bills head to the Senate rules committee next. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.