A brewing storm around third-grade reading

Warnings have been issued. Schools, both district and charter, are scurrying to get prepared. This spring, Ohio’s third-grade students will take a reading assessment, and those students unable to achieve a minimum score will have one more chance to remediate and pass in the summer—or repeat third grade.

This policy, known in Ohio as the “third-grade reading guarantee,” was adopted in 2012 as a result of Senate Bill 316 and was expected to generate some controversy when implemented. That prospect for most, however, was little more than an expected storm on day ten of a ten-day weather forecast. It could be bad, but who knows! Maybe the storm would miss us.

In October, the state administered a reading assessment to third graders across the state. The results weren’t good, with more than one-third of students failing to reach the score necessary to advance to the fourth grade. The ten-day forecast grew into a storm “warning” overnight, but the correctness of the prediction is not a cause for celebration. As with most storms, it’s important to follow a few simple steps.

First, stay calm. There have been times when the reaction to a storm is almost as intense and as big of a story as the storm itself. In some places, this buildup has begun with stories questioning the ability of districts to implement the third-grade reading guarantee. It’s important to focus on the facts of the situation. KidsOhio.org released a report last week that does just that. Without hyperbole, it examines the challenge in front of Columbus. It examines the performance of its schools on the fall reading assessment, and it compares the district’s performance to that of other urban areas, looks at the impact on the city’s charter schools, and talks with Columbus City Schools’ officials to learn more about how the law is being implemented. Overall, it’s an example of the type of analysis that we need to have.

Second, understand what’s at stake. As a storm rolls in, it’s important that we have the facts necessary to know the threat the storm presents. The simple truth is that not every storm is a “polar vortex” or “snowpocalypse.” The fall assessments suggest that the third-grade reading guarantee will affect tens of thousands of students around the state, but these students were already being impacted. A report recently released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests that a student who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade is four times more likely to drop out of school than a proficient reader. Governor Kasich’s focus on the 24,000 Ohio students who drop out each year is important, and getting our students reading on grade level in grade 3 is a critical initiative to win this fight in the long term.

Third, work hard to be prepared. Storm preparation is second nature (unfortunately) for Ohioans this year. The fall assessments are actually a part of that preparation when it comes to the third-grade reading guarantee. The results tell teachers, principals, and parents where students stand and what work remains to be done to help each student to be successful. But that’s just the beginning. Required reading interventions include supplemental instruction services, opportunities for parent involvement, and a strong reading curriculum administered during regular school hours. Moreover, these interventions are designed to start as early as Kindergarten, giving every student the best chance to read at grade level by the end of third grade. Preparation is critical as students attempt to pass the reading assessment this spring, because the more prepared our students are the less the impact will be.

When looking at the upcoming third-grade-reading “storm,” it’s critical that we stay calm, remind ourselves how important reading is to long-term success, and continue to prepare as many students as possible. It’s vital though that we don’t waver in our resolve to ensure all students leave third grade with the skills necessary to be successful. Ohio will be stronger for it.

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