Ohio's reading guarantee means more third-graders held back this year

They'll finish reading program before moving on

COLUMBUS – Ohio's Third Grade Reading Guarantee goes into full force this fall with strong backing from the Kasich administration but misgivings from a lot of parents and teachers.

Last fall, nearly all third graders in Ohio were required to take the state reading test and score a 392 or higher to advance to fourth grade.

Those who scored lower were required to retake the test last spring. Statewide, about 12 percent failed both rounds, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Greater Cincinnati's school districts' results can be found here.

Some who failed will still advance to fourth grade this fall because of exemptions for students with learning disabilities and those learning English as a second language. Others, however, will be held back and be required to participate in a rigorous reading program. The exact percentage won't be calculated for months, said John Charlton, ODE spokesman.

The state requires schools to provide those who failed with a high-performing reading teacher and 90 minutes of reading instruction each school day to help students catch up. They can rejoin their peers in reading classes midyear if their scores rise past the minimum, and they can take classes in other subjects with their peers beginning this fall if teachers deem them ready.

The goal is clear: ensure students have the reading ability to learn increasingly difficult subject matter before they advance. The strategy, supporters hope, will prevent students from falling behind, becoming discouraged and dropping out.

"You have to learn to read before you can read to learn," said Tom Ash, director of government relations for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators. "I talk about this in terms of expectations. Children respond to expectations, and we had to raise them."

The change is a tough sell, though, for many parents and teachers. On WCPO's Facebook page, more than 80 percent of respondents to a question opposed the Third Grade Guarantee, including Diane Gutierrez.

"Our children are tested to death," she said. "If this (test) happened to my son when he was in third grade, he would've been held back."  She's the mother of seventh-grader Joey and third-grader Cheyenne, both students in the Forest Hills School District.

Early in elementary school, Joey would come home crying and frustrated by bad scores on math and readings tests.  At his mother's insistence, Nagel Middle School tested Joey for a learning disability in fourth grade and started him on an Individual education plan in fifth grade.

"He has responded absolutely wonderfully," Gutierrez said. "He's had almost straight A's through sixth grade."

She fears her daughter has a similar learning disability that has gone undetected and that might keep her from advancing with her classmates under the new Third Grade Guarantee.

Victoria Kyde Ruhe, a teacher in the Three Rivers School District, said standardized tests are impeding learning. "They need to get rid of all state testing. I am a teacher. We have to teach to the test so that the kids will pass it but in the long run they are not learning as much," she wrote.

Other policy makers and politicians have joined in opposition to the guarantee, at least as it is currently formed, including the Ohio Education Association, the statewide teachers' union.

"Certainly, the OEA wants to encourage proficiency in reading but, as educators, we are increasingly concerned with the state's over-reliance on testing at all grade levels," President Becky Higgins said. "We would urge policymakers to strike a more appropriate balance so that measures of student performance are not so dependent on a test score."

Ed FitzGerald, the Democratic candidate for governor, has called for a moratorium on holding students back based on the third grade test.

"It was clear that Ohio’s schools do not have sufficient resources to meet this unfunded mandate," FitzGerald said in a release. "In order to ensure our children are reading at grade level by the third grade we must make a real investment in early childhood education and universal preschool."

The law does have supporters among parents. Rosemarie Chase's daughter, Ginny, didn't pass last fall's test and enrolled in a summer course before she got her spring test results, which turned out to be satisfactory to advance to fourth grade.

Still, Chase was happy that the state pushed for more reading instruction. "If a child cannot read, she is not going to do well in school and will become discouraged," she said. "Ginny is now starting the fourth grade with all her friends... I do think her other subjects will improve with a boost in her reading skills.  She enjoys reading now."

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