Ohio needs a reading guarantee

Ohio needs an elementary school “reading guarantee.” This
was one of several recommendations for improving student achievement in Ohio
that were pitched
last week by School Choice Ohio at its event highlighting the research of Matt
Ladner (senior advisor of policy and research to the Foundation for Excellence
in Education). Ladner noted that Florida has embraced a reading guarantee as a
key to helping improve student achievement (see Jamie’s blog
for more about his research and SCO’s policy recommendations).

Ladner
attributed Florida’s success to a set of reforms, one of which was the reading
guarantee. In other words, Florida third-grade students cannot advance to
fourth grade if they do not pass the state’s third-grade reading assessment.
The logic behind this policy is that if students aren’t competent readers by
fourth grade, they will struggle to comprehend tougher subject matter in late
elementary and middle school and beyond, and will fall further behind
academically. A report
out last year from the Annie E. Casey Foundation supports this argument. It
stated that while the failure to read is consistently linked to higher rates of
dropping out of school, “of the
fourth graders who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
reading test in 2009, 83 percent of children from low-income families—and 85
percent of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools—failed to reach
the ‘proficient’ level in reading.”

Ohio should embrace Ladner’s recommendation, and in fact we
already have. We just haven’t earnestly implemented it yet.

The Buckeye State has a history with a “reading guarantee”
that goes back to 1997 and the Voinovich administration. Fourteen years ago
lawmakers in Ohio acknowledged the fact that all fourth graders should be able
to read and as such they enacted a reading guarantee. The legislature passed Senate Bill 55,
which laid the groundwork for much of the state education accountability system
we have in place today. Among its many provisions was a "fourth-grade
reading guarantee." Set to take effect for the 2001-02
school year, it was a fairly stringent measure that stated if a child didn't
score "proficient" or better on the state reading test, s/he couldn't
progress to fifth grade..

 Ohio should embrace Lader's recommendation, and in fact we already have. We just haven't earnestly implemented it yet.  
   
 

Everyone
from parents’ groups to teacher unions was outraged by the requirement. And
given the strong local control and heavy local funding base of Ohio’s schools
(especially at that time), districts didn’t take kindly to the state
encroachment on their local grade-level promotion policies either. Before the
measure could take effect, it was ruled an unfunded mandate in 2001 by the Ohio
Supreme Court in one of the DeRolph (school-funding lawsuit) rulings.
Subsequently, the guarantee was amended by the legislature and watered-down to
appease opponents and let fourth graders who can’t read move onto fifth grade,
and beyond.

Fast forward a decade and additional legislative changes to Ohio’s law. We
still have a reading guarantee on
the books
(at the third-grade level now), but in practice nothing has
changed. School Choice Ohio reports that “although 20 percent of Ohio third graders were not proficient in
reading as judged by the state assessment, just 0.6 percent of them were
retained in the 2010-11 school year.” Those students who do fail the
third-grade reading test and still advance to fourth grade are supposed to
receive reading intervention services, though there is little evidence such
intervention is having much of an impact. Last year, 16.2 percent of Ohio
fourth graders were below proficient on the state reading test and our NAEP
reading scores have barely budged.

A real reading guarantee won’t be a silver
bullet for Ohio’s academic woes, but it surely has enough merit to inspire
renewed debate among lawmakers and state education leaders. And that debate can
be informed by recent efforts in Florida and Indiana. The Hoosier State, for example, enacted a comprehensive third-grade reading
guarantee as part of its sweeping education reforms in recent years and added
additional reading support and K-2 diagnostic testing to help prepare students,
teachers, and families for the requirement. If Ohio’s lawmakers are willing to
debate (and in some cases legislate) school funding changes, expansion of school choice, reporting on students’ Body Mass Index, and religion in schools (and more), surely a frank conversation about how well our
students can read and should be able to read, and what the state ought to do
about it, is warranted. Ohio’s students – and this state’s future – deserve at
least that much.

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