Illiteracy in Ohio: Where does the buck stop?

Last month, several urban Ohio school districts began sounding alarms over Ohio’s third-grade reading guarantee—a policy put in place several years ago that requires students who don’t reach reading proficiency by the end of grade three to be held back—fearful that a much larger number of their third graders won’t meet the requirements for promotion. The policy was put in place for good reasons; research shows that students who can’t read by third grade often fall behind in other skills, like writing, and are at a high risk of failure for the rest of their schooling careers. In addition, another brand-new research study found that retaining students can boost their high school readiness years later.

Here’s what’s happening: Students who fall short on Ohio’s state reading test can take and pass “alternative” assessments from national test vendors (e.g., NWEA MAP and Terra Nova) that in the past have been arguably easier than state tests (judging by the large number of students being promoted based upon passage of alternative tests). However, those test vendors recently set higher targets—and now an increasing number of students are missing the alternate bar. Yet rather than taking responsibility for Ohio’s youngest students’ dismal test scores, some school officials are crying “error” and “glitches,” declaring the alternate assessments to be unfair and misaligned.

Nonsense. The real issue is deciding where the buck stops when it comes to ensuring that children can read—and understanding the consequences of promoting students when they can’t.

Consider the following example. When I was in college five years ago, I was a writing tutor for undergraduate and graduate students. At the beginning of a typical session, I’d ask my students to read their assignments aloud because it broke the ice and usually made them more comfortable with their essays. In addition, it encouraged them to make suggestions along the way. Occasionally, I found myself in a position where students would refuse to read aloud, due to bashfulness. A few times, though, it was for a more unsettling reason: They were nearly illiterate.

I remember one student in particular. She was in her late twenties and had a thick Appalachian accent that quivered when she read her piece to me. The stress she felt was almost palpable. She knew her essay wasn’t at the level it needed to be. But she also knew she needed to get a good enough grade on this paper or she would fail. Unfortunately, she could barely write a coherent paragraph.

She’s not alone. Somehow she and thousands of young people just like her receive high school diplomas while barely being able to read. According to Seeds of literacya Cleveland organization devoted to providing personalized education that empowers adults to succeed—a staggering 66 percent of Cleveland residents are functionally illiterate. And a 2014 study by the United States Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy found that 32 million adults in the U.S. cannot read; more troubling is that 19 percent of those adults graduated from high school, likely products of social promotion. Some of these young women and men who struggle to read are admitted to college.

Today’s students deserve better than the practices of the past. They should be equipped with the knowledge and tools they need to thrive after they receive their diplomas. And while many leaders in the education space may have good intentions, some solutions are deeply misguided. Most notable are “fixes” that provide students “outs” when they fall short of educational requirements. Are we helping struggling readers when we allow schools to promote them, despite failing to reach proficiency on the state reading exams or the alternate assessments? And are we doing right by our older students by creating a graduation alternative that gives high school seniors credit toward their diplomas just for showing up to class? Is this how we encourage grit and persistence, behaviors that are essential to success as an adult?

As my colleague Jamie Davies O’Leary put it, “there’s nothing compassionate about diminished expectations” for students. When we have college students showing up for tutoring while reading at a fifth grade level, it’s beyond time to admit there’s a problem, that we need to do more, that we need to hold our feet to the fire and follow through on policies meant to hold schools accountable (which Ohio hasn’t done well of in the past).

I never learned what grade my student received on her assignment, as we only had one session. I’m hopeful that she left that day and went on to receive the supports she needed to help her finish college and enter the workforce. I wonder if her teachers had hoped for the same: that someone else along her path would prepare her with the skills she needed that are so fundamental to adult success, things like basic literacy. But hope isn’t enough—and policies like the third-grade reading guarantee and meaningful graduation requirements should be guarantees that students are prepared. I understand that no one wants to see their student fail. But we need to ask ourselves which is crueler: holding a student back because they’re not ready yet, or promising them they’re prepared when they’re not.

Madison Yoder
Madison Yoder the communications and policy associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute