Richard Ross was not being dramatic in the least when he said on Thursday that Ohio has a moral obligation to make sure children have the ability to read well. The state school superintendent argued that it is beyond urgent to prevent them from falling behind, dropping out of school later and fading away out of sight, out of mind and into a future that is bleak. Set that real-life cost of not being able to read against the test results of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, and the urgency to act becomes clear.
Beginning this school year, third-graders who fall below a reading standard may not progress to fourth grade until they demonstrate the appropriate level of proficiency. That is state law. The reading test is offered in the fall and again in the spring, giving school districts and students roughly six months during the school year for intensive intervention, with a third testing opportunity during the summer.
The state Department of Education released on Friday the results of third-graders who took the reading test this fall. The results highlight the heavy lifting that will be required to help all students to read at grade level. Statewide, more than one-third of students did not make the passing score of 400 points on the Ohio Achievement Assessments. A score below 392 points puts students in line for retention. In the Akron Public Schools, the early estimate is that about 438 third-graders would qualify for retention if their scores have not improved by the summer.
Reading deficiencies do not begin in the third grade. Roughly one-third of K-3 students in Ohio’s largest urban districts lag their peers in reading, mostly because of inadequate opportunities for high quality early learning experiences. Superintendent Ross rightly sees an obligation to intervene aggressively to move the thousands of students statewide who need to catch up now or face retention, with all the emotional and financial costs a retention policy entails.
The obligation truly lies in developing a strategy that guarantees all children will have the foundation to read at grade level before they leave kindergarten. It is well enough to hold the hammer of retention over the heads of students and school districts — but only when the state has an adequate framework to give everyone a fair shot at reading success.
Florida, which has significantly raised reading proficiency levels, paired its third-grade guarantee and retention approach with massive investments in preschool, intensive training for K-3 reading teachers, research and literacy programs across the school system. Ohio failed to meet such obligations when it adopted a fourth-grade guarantee in the past. A reading guarantee, in any grade, requires that Ohio commit the resources to comprehensive early childhood education.