Too many of our schools dramatically shortchange students by advancing them on to higher grades without the ability to read. Ohio lawmakers took action last year to finally curtail this practice. Sadly a group of misinformed people have announced their intention to undo this literacy improvement strategy before it has even had a chance to take effect. Ohio’s most disadvantaged children will suffer terrible harm if they succeed.

Every child has a window of opportunity in the critical early years. It’s not impossible to learn to read once aging out of this window any more than it is impossible for you to become fluent in a foreign language as an adult, but it becomes increasingly difficult as you get older.

For too long, and despite earlier efforts to provide a third-grade reading guarantee, the state’s children simply get passed on to the next grade. Each year, the curriculum becomes more challenging, but students lack the skills to rise with it. Children going through this cruel farce will describe themselves as bored, and they often become disruptive. They know they will never be going to college, and they inevitably start to wonder why they go to school at all.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released a study that tracked a cohort of students through their entire K-12 careers. The study found that 88 percent of 19-year-old dropouts had failed to score as proficient readers as third graders. Ohio schools don’t just suffer from a dropout problem; they all too often manufacture dropouts starting in Kindergarten.

The Nation’s Report Card reveals how many students Ohio schools currently have on their dropout assembly line. In 2011, 29 percent of Ohio children scored Below Basic, 37 percent scored Basic (signifying partial mastery of grade level reading skills), and 34 percent scored Proficient or Better.

Ohio had almost two-hundred thousand fourth graders enrolled in 2011. Of those, roughly 58,000 are almost certainly in Ohio’s dropout pipeline (those scoring Below Basic) absent a difficult and rare intervention in their educations. Another 75,000 students in the cohort with partial reading mastery could go either way. Only the remaining students have cleared this hurdle.

In 2001, Florida policymakers took dramatic action to address their literacy crisis with a comprehensive plan. The Florida strategy included early screening of student literacy skills, improved teacher training, parental notification, and the drawing up of individual reading intervention plans. Lawmakers included a provision to hold students, families, and schools accountable by creating a minimal literacy bar for students to surmount before advancing to fourth grade.

The Florida policy helped to inform the policy now in Ohio law. Both states give multiple chances to students to pass the third-grade reading test and both include reasonable exceptions. The policy however makes the default for a third-grade student needing extra literacy help to repeat the third grade with an escalated set of academic interventions. 

Some claim that the strategy being pursued by states like Florida and Ohio is cruel, but they are entirely mistaken. Nothing is crueler than sending students into grades for which they are unprepared, with textbooks they literally cannot read.

Florida retentions have dropped in half since the start of the program over a decade ago for exactly the right reason – because more students are learning how to read during their optimum window of opportunity. Today Florida middle school teachers receive far more students prepared to learn.

Sadly, the president-elect of the Ohio School Boards Association opposes the new Ohio strategy. The Florida experience clearly demonstrates however that retention leveraged as a part of a comprehensive plan to improve early childhood literacy has increased high-school graduation and college attendance while lowering the dropout rate.

School districts and organizations like the Ohio School Boards Association have had decades to address Ohio’s literacy crisis. Like the rest of us, they have failed to do so. If you were an elementary student who was struggling with learning to read, would you want to your schools to simply pass you on to the next grade and hope for the best? Or would you prefer to have a system that viewed literacy acquisition as a “failure is not an option” priority for families and schools?

If you chose option B then the third-grade reading guarantee policy needs and deserves your support.

Signed by,

Mathew Ladner, Senior Advisor for Policy and Research, the Foundation for Excellence in Education

Tracie Craft, Deputy Director of Advocacy, Black Alliance for Educational Options

Terry Ryan, Vice President for Ohio Programs and Policy, Thomas B. Fordham Institute



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