Gov. John Kasich’s administration offers a “guarantee” that all Ohio students will read at grade level by the third grade, as measured by standardized tests, or they will be held back. That policy, unaccompanied by adequate funding, is causing problems for public schools in the Toledo area and across the state.
In pushing for the mandate, Mr. Kasich cited research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that shows that children who are not proficient in reading by third grade are more likely to drop out of school later on. But the foundation also has concluded that “evidence is certainly not strong enough to support mandatory retention for every child who fails a standardized test.” Other studies show that children who are held back a grade also are at high risk of dropping out.
The results of statewide reading tests given last fall showed that 36.7 percent of Toledo Public Schools third-graders achieved grade-level reaching proficiency, compared with 73.7 percent in Sylvania Schools and 67.2 percent in the Maumee district.
TPS elementary school students who aren’t on track to reading proficiency are placed on an improvement plan that includes close monitoring, notifies parents, and calls for special remedial help. Some exemptions apply, such as for students with disabilities.
Since the guarantee program began in 2012-2013, it would have made more sense to delay mandatory retention until the 2015-2016 school year, when third-graders could have benefited from four years of state-mandated intervention. As it is, third-graders who don’t make the mark after more testing this year could be held back in September, or have to attend summer school, or be sent to fourth grade for other subjects but retained in third grade for reading instruction.
TPS officials don’t know how many students will be retained this year, or how they will divide instruction between third and fourth grades next year. “It’s a staffing nightmare,” a TPS teacher said.
Meanwhile, the number of TPS reading specialists has dropped from six to two because of a loss of federal aid. The state has given the district no more money to help it meet the third-grade guarantee, TPS Treasurer Matt Cleland notes.
Early intervention improves reading skills. Parents, especially in disadvantaged households, need help before a child reaches school to expose toddlers to a rich vocabulary and intellectual stimulation early on.
State lawmakers should suspend this unfunded mandate. In the meantime, if they truly want to help achieve the third-grade reading goal, they will allocate more money for intensive preschool and in-school instruction.