Starting this year, third graders in some Ohio public school districts, including Toledo Public Schools, will take a reading exam designed for fourth graders.
For districts like Toledo, with a record of low proficiency scores, the state's offer to let schools give the fourth-grade reading proficiency test early is a welcome opportunity to identify large numbers of children who are at risk of failing the Ohio reading proficiency test in fourth grade.
“We felt that, first of all, it was fairest to students and their parents to know where those students who aren't likely to pass had the greatest problems, so we can concentrate on just those areas,” Sally Clapp, director of testing for Toledo Public Schools, said.
However, many school districts are reluctant to give the difficult reading exam to children who are not likely to pass it.
Under a new rule aimed at averting educational disaster in 2001-2002, when tens of thousands of Ohio fourth graders are threatened with being denied promotion to fifth grade, Ohio schools have been given the option of giving the test in March of third grade.
The option was communicated to school administrators early this fall, leaving only a few days to make a decision, administrators said.
Cynthia Durdel, the executive director of instruction for Sylvania Public Schools, said the district decided to order the tests but has not decided to administer them.
Third graders who take the test and fail it may come away discouraged, she said.
“What have we done to the self esteem of those who don't pass it and have to take it next year?” Mrs. Durdel asked. “You're giving a fourth-grade test to a child who developmentally isn't expected to know it.”
On the other hand, she said, parents have a right to know whether their child is at risk of not passing the test. She said Sylvania is seeking comment from parents, teachers, and other school districts before making a decision.
Sylvania is under less a sense of urgency than Toledo. Sylvania has accomplished 20 of the 27 indicators of what the state considers an “effective” school district, putting it in the category of “continuous improvement.” Toledo Public Schools is rated in “academic emergency” because last year it achieved only five of the 27 indicators.
The district needs to raise the percentage of fourth graders passing the reading proficiency test from last year's 34 per cent to 75 per cent to meet the state's standards.
The test will identify children who have a good chance of passing it in fourth grade and will help teachers work on the skills that improve those children's chances of passing.
Joyce Oyer, a fourth-grade teacher in the Wauseon school district who has been critical of the tests, said her district has opted not to give the test in third grade. She said it takes average or above-average fourth-grade ability to pass the test.
“Why put kids in that situation and have them experience failure?” she asked. “If you told them it was just a practice test, that might be acceptable.”
Jan Crandell, assistant director of testing for the state Department of Education, said the tests taken by third-graders will be scored the same way that the fourth-grade tests are scored, with 217 points considered the “proficient” level. She said there are no plans to set a lower score that would be appropriate for third grade.
Under a 1997 law called the Fourth Grade Reading Guarantee, children in public schools who fail the fourth-grade reading test during the 2001-2002 school year will be denied promotion to fifth grade, unless the child's reading teacher and the principal agree that the child is academically prepared for fifth grade.
In Toledo last year, 1,833 fourth graders fell short of the 217 points needed for passage and could have been held back a grade if the law had been in place. Statewide, 53,434 fourth graders failed.
The Governor's Commission on Student Success is expected to make recommendations Dec. 14 that might change the reading guarantee.
The state also has made available the option of giving the fourth-grade test in October and the following summer. Such a schedule will give school districts and children four opportunities to pass the exam before they could be retained in fourth grade.