Of course every child should be able to read by the time he or she leaves third grade. But it will take more than a governor's mandate or a watered-down bill to get that job done.
Gov. John Kasich's third-grade reading guarantee would require testing in kindergarten to identify students who are not making enough progress at learning to read. Schools would have to develop individualized plans for these students. Second-graders who still struggled would have to attend summer school.
Tutors and other extra help would be provided to third-graders who still were not reading at grade level. Finally, students who failed to achieve a score of "proficient" on the state reading exam would have to repeat third grade.
Had the mandate been in effect during the 2010-2011 school year, 17,000 -- 12.5 percent -- of Ohio's 135,000 third-grade students would have been held back.
The Ohio Senate recently approved a weakened version of Governor Kasich's proposal that would require students only to test in the "basic" range to be promoted to fourth grade. Students who failed to meet this score still could be promoted by school principals based on portfolios of their work. In 2010-2011, 5,700 Ohio third-graders failed to score in the "basic" range or above.
The Senate bill would provide $13 million to help school districts pay for tutors and other expenses. Mr. Kasich included no new resources with his mandate, despite a state budget that has slashed more than $1.8 billion in aid to local schools.
Mr. Kasich's plan is too simple. Threatening a flood of retained third-graders won't get schools to work harder to teach children to read. It will overcrowd third-grade classrooms and create needless emotional and social distress.
The Senate's plan is toothless. It sets the bar too low, and provides loopholes so that schools can avoid meeting even that weaker standard.
Retention isn't a cure-all. Lorrie Shepard, a University of Colorado professor who specializes in retention research, told National Public Radio that every few years, states rediscover reading mandates. But "once they feel the negative side-effects, they'll back off," she says.
Nor is retention always effective. The nonpartisan Education Commission of the States reported that while retention creates "a sense of urgency," identification and intervention often can be effective without the threat of holding students back.
Reading is more complex than these carrot-and-stick approaches suggest. Some students are not developmentally ready to read when they start school. Other children come from homes where reading is not valued or modeled.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that local children who attend preschool are 80 percent more likely to test at the proficient level or higher on the state third-grade reading test. Yet state and federal aid is insufficient to make sure every child in Ohio can attend preschool.
Third grade is the transition between when students learn to read and when they are expected to read to learn. Yet the Children's Reading Foundation notes that 12 percent of American children who enter fourth grade read at a beginning third-grade level, while 25 percent read at a first or second-grade level.
Retention threats and unfunded mandates won't improve these statistics. Expanded and improved preschool, parent involvement, tutoring, and other programs work, but they cost money. And in the end, nothing is guaranteed.