Changing demographics in Ohio require continued focus on early literacy

The Hispanic population in the United States continues to grow, with Hispanics making up nearly 17 percent of the total population. This population is young (33 percent is of school age) and is changing the demographics of schools in many states, Ohio among them. From 2000–10, the Hispanic population in Ohio grew to approximately 350,000 individuals, representing 3 percent of the state’s total population. That’s obviously smaller than in, say, Texas, but the number is rising.

Unfortunately, Hispanic students in Ohio schools are struggling. On the Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA), administered in May 2013, Hispanic children scored lower than the state average in both reading and mathematics at every grade level tested. Similarly, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2013, Hispanic students in Ohio scored, on average, seventeen points lower than their white peers in fourth-grade reading and fifteen points lower in fourth-grade math. Further, only 66 percent of Hispanic students in Ohio graduate from high school, compared to 80 percent for all students. These results indicate that the achievement gap remains wide in Ohio, and with the population of minority students growing , the education challenge is only going to intensify. Demographics ought not dictate destiny.

Which brings us to early literacy. Myriad reports have been conducted on the subject, including a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which noted that students who are unable to read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without earning a diploma than their proficient peers. The outcomes are even more concerning for minority students: 24 percent of African American students and 25 percent of Hispanic students who were not proficient in third grade failed to graduate, nearly twice the rate of nonproficient white students. Yet those gaps nearly disappear when students master reading by the end of the third grade.[1]

Early literacy was one of several key education-reform policies that Florida adopted in 1999 under Governor Jeb Bush, and the results have drawn national attention. In 2010, Hispanic students in the Sunshine State tied or bettered the statewide fourth-grade reading average of all students in thirty-one states. By 2013, Florida’s fourth-grade Hispanic students scored better than their peers in every other state. High school graduation rates have also improved: the graduation rate for Hispanic students in Florida increased from 63 percent in 2008–09 to 75 percent in 2012–13[2]. While it’s true that the demographics differ between Ohio and Florida—4 percent of Buckeye students are Hispanic, compared to 29 percent of the students in the Sunshine State—we can learn much from Florida’s success. (For a more in-depth look comparing Florida’s performance to Ohio’s, take a look at this paper by Matthew Ladner.)

With its new Third Grade Reading Guarantee, Ohio is demonstrating a new commitment to ensuring that all young students gain the literacy building blocks that are so important to future success. It’s critical that Ohio’s political leaders stay the course and not back away from the state’s commitment to third-grade reading, as has been occurring in other states. If Florida’s experience is any indication, Ohio’s focus on early literacy could be especially helpful to our growing Hispanic population.

[1] Only 4 percent of white students who are proficient in third-grade reading fail to graduate from high school, compared to 6 percent of African American students and 9 percent of Hispanic students. These differences are not statistically significant.

[2] The graduation rate for all students has improved from approximately 65 percent in 2008–09 to 76 percent in 2012–13.