Success for third-grade readers in Ohio requires all hands and all voices

Last week, I attended a forum at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, hosted by our friends at KidsOhio.org, which showcased efforts in the city of Columbus to meet the challenge of Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee. The district’s work thus far is impressive: multiple citywide family literacy events held over the last four months, recruitment of “literacy-buddy” volunteers for in-school service, extensive training for reading interventionists, and even mustering the support of school-bus drivers to encourage reading every day. Is all of this effort going to make every third grader pass the reading test before the start of fourth grade? No. Is it going to improve upon the 48 percent passing rate achieved in the district last fall? Yes—and when it does, one long-standing barrier to achievement in my hometown schools will be overcome for hundreds of children.

And as for the mighty Columbus Metropolitan Library, voted more than once the number-one library system of its size in the country? Well, they’re trying really hard. Panelist Alison Circle noted several times that she and her staff are “out of their comfort zone” in an effort of this type. Nevertheless, they should be applauded for supplying books, recruiting volunteers, and making sure that schools and families know their doors are open to all in support of this “all-hands-on-deck moment” in our community.

It is fitting that attendees seemed most impressed with the stories told—of Columbus superintendent Dan Good’s mother joining him at a family literacy event and bringing his cherished childhood books to show to children; of a bus driver who recommends books to riders; of children who are eager to share that they just learned the word “cute” starts with “C” and not “Q.” But those signs of progress and hope are tiny and fragile and will require much sustained work to keep from falling backward, given the challenge the district faces.

And therein lies a cautionary tale. Just as words and stories of encouragement and support are absorbed by children and can fortify them, so too are words and stories of test anxiety and the jokes of adults with just the opposite effect.

All attendees at the event were given practice third-grade reading test booklets and we were told to complete them; our hostess even took time to give us all the answers later to check our work. I was the only person at my table to get beyond question four, let alone finish the test. I did finish it, and I got a 14/14 according to my grader. I say this not to brag but to caution against talk of “icky tests” and “you weren’t expecting to do this today, were you?” These types of sentiments passed on to budding readers could very easily undo all of the work that has been done already. Words of doubt didn’t stop at my table, either. The session itself included talk of “failing,” mistaken reporting that it’s one-and-done on testing, and even a tiny joke about using “books as weapons” on the bus. Such slip-ups indicate to me that while hands are on deck, minds may well be elsewhere. These must be avoided.

Children see, hear, and understand so much. It is imperative to keep to the message: reading is vital, reading is awesome, and all the tools needed are here and waiting for children and their families to overcome this one barrier right now and forever. And all these hands are ready to help—not because some law says we must but because we truly believe that this is important work that can be accomplished. We can’t let our guard down for a moment on this because we already know where that will get us. We already own that.

As the Columbus Dispatch editors put it so succinctly back in March, “Extraordinary effort will have to become the new normal.” So banish the “icky-test” talk, muster every available bus driver and grandma and dad, and get in there to fight.

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