The premise is irreproachable, even self-evident: No Ohio third-grader will be promoted until he or she shows the ability to read at grade level. That “guarantee,” a major plank of Gov. John Kasich’s education policy, is now state law.
But the admirable intent of the law — to prevent young people who read poorly from falling behind their classmates, eventually dropping out of school, and limiting their possibilities in life — is colliding with reality. State education officials acknowledged last week that more than one-third of third-grade students failed the state’s reading proficiency test in October and are at risk of being held back.
In Toledo Public Schools, that share appears closer to half. These students will get another crack at the reading proficiency test in May, and a further opportunity if they attend summer school. Some students who still don’t pass could take fourth-grade courses in other subjects next year.
It seems unlikely, though, that TPS or any other school district would have the capacity to keep back a third or a half of an entire grade. So it’s critical that districts use the test results to determine which students and schools need remedial attention now, and to make sure that they get it. Toledo Schools Superintendent Romules Durant says the district plans to expand a program that provides intensive reading support and has helped raise test scores in some city schools.
State officials say the new law forces school districts to intervene and address, rather than gloss over, their students’ reading deficiencies. But that duty should not fall exclusively on local districts, and the law shouldn’t merely shame and punish students who don’t test well.
Students with reading problems don’t suddenly develop them on the first day of third grade. They routinely start school behind their peers because they lack the opportunities for intellectual stimulation that are available to better-advantaged families. Districts in economically struggling communities, both urban and rural, face particular challenges.
That’s why TPS and its partners need to present a credible application to run the Head Start early-education program for children from poor families in Toledo and Lucas County. An out-of-town company is temporarily overseeing that federally funded program.
And Congress needs to enact, rather than ignore, President Obama’s proposal to increase federal aid to early-childhood education. The comprehensive approach that the plan envisions is essential.
Other states with similar reading guarantees have invested more than Ohio has in preschool education, teacher training, and related programs. To the contrary, Columbus too often has cut state aid to local schools in recent years, even as it has placed greater demands on them.
The failings of the federal No Child Left Behind program make clear that mandates for school improvement that are not accompanied by adequate resources tend not to work well. If Ohio’s government has a real sense of urgency about ensuring that children read better, it must display its wallet as well as its cudgel.