With regard to reading proficiency, the moment of truth arrived last month for parents and teachers of third-graders in Ohio’s public schools. The state Department of Education announced the results of the Ohio Achievement Assessment reading test, and they left much to be desired. About 34 percent of third-graders who took the state test did not meet the proficiency level to qualify for promotion to the fourth grade. Students who do not demonstrate proficiency, scoring at least 392 points on the state test or an approved alternative by the end of third grade, will be retained, a requirement in state law that took effect this school year.
If students are unable to read in the primary grades, the odds of success in higher grades are not in their favor. It is a disgrace that so many schoolchildren in Ohio lack such a foundational learning skill. Thus, the insistence on early reading proficiency is crucial. State lawmakers underscored the importance with the controversial retention policy.
The policy raises the stakes for all whose responsibility it is to help students acquire reading skills. State Sen. Peggy Lehner, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, observes correctly that “if there aren’t high stakes … people just aren’t going to do what’s necessary to get done.”
And what’s necessary to get done is to define clearly the standards and expectations and to ensure intensive intervention is available to bring students up to speed who are at risk of retention. Critical, too, is investing in programs beginning in preschool that put students on track for reading proficiency before they reach the third grade. The provisions in the state law recognize as much, in essence, holding out the promise to meet the conditions for reading success.
For state policymakers, as for school districts and parents, the large number of students at risk of retention thus presents a major test of commitment. It is reassuring that both Sen. Lerner and state Rep. Gerald Stebelton, who heads the House Education Committee, have stated the need to hold firm against pressure to roll back requirements of the law or lower the cut score for promotion. It serves no one, least of all the children, to pretend they are on track to succeed when they are not.
That said, lawmakers over the years have back-tracked on educational goals and funding commitments often enough to justify concern. All the hand-wringing about poor reading skills, for instance, seems not to sway Gov. John Kasich to make the reading guarantee a higher funding priority than further reductions in income taxes.