Ohio policymakers hear Sunshine State education reform lessons

Ellen Belcher

Not until Florida passed a law that required schools to hold back third graders who read poorly did districts get serious about helping those students catch up, the director of an education reform group told Ohio lawmakers and state school board members Thursday.

Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, said that with the 2002-03 school year Florida began retaining students who were scoring “functionally illiterate” on the state’s achievement test. That year, 13.2 percent of third graders were not promoted. By 2009-10 that number had dropped to by more than half to 5.9 percent.

“Nobody followed it (the law requiring help for poor readers) -- until we had to look that parent in the eye” and say your child is going to be held back, Levesque said.

The Ohio Senate Education Committee has been hearing testimony on Gov. John Kasich’s call to adopt a “third grade reading guarantee” and a new rating system that assigns districts and schools an A to F grade, among other changes.

Levesque and Marcus A. Winters, an assistant professor from the University of Colorado and senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, spoke to the committee and at a special meeting of the state school board at the invitation of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Fordham’s Vice President for Ohio Programs and Policy Terry Ryan said that Florida has been receiving so much attention for its education reform efforts that Fordham wanted to bring “the experts” to Ohio as Buckeye State leaders considered similar proposals.

Florida students have been making notable academic strides. Since 2003 when all states began participating in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (aka, the Nation’s Report Card), Florida’s low-income students have made the third-largest gains as compared to low-income students nationally. The state had the fourth-largest gain among African-American students.

Levesque said Florida’s decision to retain poor readers in third grade was part of a bundle of changes to improve academic performance overall and specifically to help failing third graders catch up. If students are not reading well at the end of third grade, research shows they’re more likely to drop out in high school.

In Florida, third graders who are not promoted are required to attend summer school; they receive an additional 90 minutes of reading instruction per day; they are assigned to a “high-performing” teacher; and teachers must create a reading improvement plan tailored to their specific reading deficiency.

In the face of the third-grade retention policy, “School districts started intervening (with struggling students) earlier,” Levesque said.

Noting that in 2002, Florida’s fourth-grade students significantly trailed Ohio on NAEP and that last year the two states’ students were effectively tied, Levesque said she did not come to Ohio “to say how great Florida is… but to provide some help and hope.”

More than a decade ago -- in 1999 -- Florida stopped using “fuzzy” grading standards and adopted an A to F grading scale for schools and districts, a move Ohio lawmakers are also considering.

Levesque said 50 percent of the grade a Florida school district receives is tied to the percentage of its students performing at grade level and the other 50 percent is based on the percentage of students who learn a year’s worth of material, regardless of whether they started the year behind or ahead.

The latter “progress” score, however, is weighted to count the achievement scores of the lowest performing 25 percent of students twice (once, in the school or district’s overall progress measure, and again, in a measure of the progress of just the bottom quartile of students). The intent, Levesque said, is to force attention on struggling students, arguing that the emphasis is fair because every district, regardless of its demographic make-up, has a bottom quartile.

In 1999, Florida had more schools rated D and F than A and B schools (677 vs. 515). In 2011, it had ten 10 times more A and B schools than D and F schools (2,310 vs. 179). But Florida isn’t content with this progress. “One of the things we keep doing is raising the bar.” In any year going forward, if at least 75 percent of elementary, middle or high schools statewide are rated As or Bs, the scores to earn those grades levels will be raised 5 percent. Further, because Florida is raising achievement standards this year – in anticipation of transition to the Common Core in 2014-15 – the state expects its third-grade retention number will spike to double digits.

Winters testified about his peer-reviewed research, which he said finds “strong evidence that remediation under a policy similar to Florida’s has a large and sustained positive effect on student achievement.”

Winters said that by following two groups of students – one that barely scored well enough to be promoted to fourth grade and one that just missed being promoted – his study came close to creating an “apples to apples” sample. Most other previous research on holding children back, he said, did not follow “modern research standards” because students were promoted or held back partially based on considerations (like a child’s maturity) that a researcher couldn’t know or take into account.

By looking at students who were just on either side of the cut score for promotion, his study approached identifying the subjects randomly. The students’ scores were so close, Winters said, the difference could be attributed to a few good or bad guesses on standardized tests.

While it’s true that the research favoring “social promotion” is extensive, Winters discounted the findings. Of the 22 papers done between 1990 and 2006 that looked at the effects of holding students back and their later achievement, only six are “high quality,” Winters said.

Winters’ study will be published in the summer edition of Education Finance and Policy.

Winters said Florida’s retention and remediation efforts have “a very large effect” in the years immediately after a child is held back, resulting in “substantial improvement in both math and reading.” “That effect appears to fade,” he said, “as the student progresses through middle school.” However, the finding that retaining a child in third grade creates “statistically significant” positive differences five years out distinguishes the policy from other efforts to improve academic achievement, many of which have a fleeting effect.

The Senate Education heard three days of testimony this week on Senate Bill 316, the governor’s education reform proposal.

Just one percent of Ohio’s third graders – or 800 students -- were held back last year, according to The Columbus Dispatch. That number could rise to 15,000 – 12 percent of third graders – under Gov. Kasich’s proposal, the Dispatch reported.

Levesque said that teachers in upper grades in Florida support the state’s retention policy – she said she prefers the name Ohio lawmakers are using, the “third grade reading guarantee” – because students they receive are ready to learn grade-level content.

Sen. Larry Obhof, R-Montville Twp., said the testimony by Levesque and Winters was the “most uplifting” he has heard in the 15 months he has sat on the Education Committee.

Ellen Belcher is an award-winning journalist and former editorial page editor of the Dayton Daily News, where she frequently wrote about education issues. Currently, she is a freelance editor and writer and teaches at the university level.

Want more?
-    See Patricia Levesque’s presentation online here and Marcus Winter’s presentation here.
-    Check out the Columbus Dispatch’s coverage of their testimony here and here, and the Akron Beacon Journal’s editorial on the third-grade reading guarantee here.

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