When the standard isn’t the standard: Ohio’s early reading guarantee

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In a pattern now becoming all too familiar, the State Board of Education recently got spooked by the prospect of tougher standards and delayed action on lifting grade-promotion standards under the Third Grade Reading Guarantee for 2018–19. The decision should not have been a gut-wrenching one, since state law requires the board to gradually lift standards each year after initial implementation. As most loyal Gadfly readers know, the reading guarantee is an early-intervention policy that aims to ensure that children can read fluently before entering fourth grade.

At issue at the June board meeting were the standards students need to meet to be promoted. But what exactly are Ohio’s promotional standards? What exams and test scores determine promotion—or retention, if falling short? Are they rigorous benchmarks, or are they relatively easy for students to meet?

The first thing to know about promotional standards is that they currently have little to do with proficiency on state exams. That might be surprising, given the guarantee’s stated purpose “to make sure that students are on track for reading success by the end of third grade.” Rather what we see from figure 1 is a significant discrepancy between promotional and proficiency rates, especially in the past two years. In 2013–14 and 2014–15—the first two years of the reading guarantee—Ohio administered its old third-grade ELA tests that had low proficiency bars, thus explaining the smaller gaps. But the gap has widened as Ohio has now shifted to new state tests with higher proficiency standards. In 2016–17, for example, a remarkable 94 percent of students met the requirements necessary for promotion, yet just 64 percent reached proficiency on the state’s third grade English language arts (ELA) exams.

Figure 1: Percent of students reaching proficient or above on third grade ELA exams versus percent meeting the Third Grade Reading Guarantee promotional requirements, 2013–14 to 2016–17

Source: Ohio Department of Education

What explains the gap between promotional and proficiency rates? The answers lie primarily in Ohio policy. Consider the following issues.

Exclusions

The discrepancy reflects in part the impact of students who are included in proficiency rates but excluded from promotional calculations. English language learners and certain students with disabilities, for instance, are exempted under state law from the guarantee’s promotional requirements. Yet most (if not all) of these students are included in proficiency calculations. This “deflates” the proficiency rate to a certain extent if they score less than proficient on the state assessment. To put it another way, Ohio’s proficiency rate may have been a few percentage points higher had it reflected only students included in the promotional rate. Nevertheless, these reasonable exclusions play a minor role in explaining the discrepancy: From 2013–14 through 2016–17, just 5 to 7 percent of students have been excluded from the promotional requirements, leaving 20 to 30 percentage-point gaps in the past two years that still require explanation.

Promotional standards

The most significant factor explaining the gap is that Ohio policymakers haven’t matched promotional and proficiency standards. State law doesn’t necessarily require equivalency between the two—at least not in the early years of implementation. Rather a statute calls on the State Board of Education to set gradually higher promotional standards until they eventually match the proficiency benchmark (no specific timetable is given). To set the promotional bar, the state board has recently relied on reading “subscale” scores on third-grade ELA exams, thus excluding results on the writing section. Although this is a very literal interpretation of the “reading” guarantee, it’s not apparent that state law permits this; it refers explicitly to the ELA assessments in its promotional provisions. In any case, the board has established standards using reading subscale scores set below the proficient, or “on grade level,” benchmark since 2015–16.

Starting in 2017–18, the board shifted gears slightly and began setting promotional standards based on both overall ELA scores and reading subscales. Students can be promoted if they meet one or the other standard. But even this action raises questions: Why didn’t the board lift reading subscale scores in 2017–18? According to Hannah news service, a state official explained last July that the reading subscales are now being treated—somewhat puzzlingly—as an alternative assessment (more below) that students can use to meet promotional requirements, with the full ELA exam now being seen as the main test. Because state law only directs the board to increase the ELA standards for promotion—and is silent about raising benchmarks on alternatives—it’s lawful to maintain the same subscale benchmarks each year.

The upshot of this twisty tale: About one in five students over the past couple years have been promoted to fourth grade even though they don’t reach proficiency benchmarks. That will continue until the state board aligns promotional standards with proficiency.

Table 1: Scores needed to meet promotional standards on state third-grade ELA tests

Notes: For 2013–14 and 2014–15, Ohio used ELA scaled scores (below proficient) from its “old” state exams to set promotional standards. The state’s achievement levels are as follows (from lowest to highest): limited, basic, proficient, accelerated, and advanced. At its June 2018 meeting, the State Board of Education proposed but did not pass a resolution to adopt 677 as the ELA promotional score for 2018–19; no mention is made in the resolution about reading subscale scores. 

Alternative assessments

Finally, we must not forget that state law also allows for grade promotion when students meet an “acceptable level of performance” on alternative reading assessments. Currently, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) approves—at its own discretion—four alternatives (not including the reading score on the state assessment) that schools may offer for the purposes of meeting promotional requirements. It’s not clear how exactly ODE, the board, or test developers work to align promotional scores on alternatives with state exams. Indeed, there has been some questioning around this very issue. (Several districts recently claimed the alternative promotional scores are too stringent!) That’s something the board—or the governor or legislature—should demand answers on, so long as state law allows the use of alternative assessments. Nonetheless, such alternatives have permitted thousands of students to move to the next grade, even though they did not demonstrate acceptable reading skills on state exams that they have multiple opportunities to take. In 2015–16 and 2016–17, ODE reported that 8.3 and 4.3 percent of students, respectively, used alternative tests to gain promotion—a final factor that helps to explain the proficiency-promotion gap.

* * *

Six years ago this month, Governor Kasich signed into law the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, telling the press, “Kids who make their way through social promotion beyond the third grade, when they get up to the 8th, 9th, 10th grade … they get lapped, the material becomes too difficult.” Research backs up his point, indicating that pupils struggling to read early in life have great difficulty catching up, and many eventually drop out of school. Halting the grade-promotion train, at least momentarily, is the right thing to do. Young children who have difficulty reading deserve the instructional time and help needed to get the fundamentals nailed down. To implement the policy properly, Ohio needs to set clear, high standards for promotion, lest children fail to receive the supports they need to move on. Regrettably, it appears that some policymakers have been more interested in fiddling with promotional standards and playing games with alternative tests than focusing on ensuring students are proficient. Here’s hoping—or is it wishing?—that the board will at last approve a higher bar when it meets in July. After all, it’s the law.

 
 
Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.