Twelve 8- or 9-year-old students in Elyria could find themselves repeating third grade starting in the fall.
That’s 2 percent of the more than 450 students who were a part of Elyria’s inaugural class of students affected by the state-mandated Third Grade Reading Guarantee.
“To us, it’s always been about doing the work, finding out what students need and coming up with ways to get them there,” said Ann Schloss, Elyria’s director of academic services. “Yes, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee has a lot more teeth in it because it takes away the teacher and parent component that addresses what’s best for the child, but everything the state called for in the legislation was happening in Elyria because it’s in the best interest of the child.”
In the 2013-14 school year, third-grade students statewide took a myriad of assessments aimed at one question: Are students reading at grade level?
“These preliminary results show that most Ohio students have mastered the reading skills they need to be successful, but more needs to be done,” said state Superintendent Richard Ross. “We need to continue and in some cases increase our efforts to ensure every boy and girl in Ohio will have the skills necessary to be lifelong learners.”
Many school districts have implemented special reading programs to help students who are struggling to earn a promotion score. The Ohio Department of Education also provided $13 million in grants to nearly 100 applicants for programs to provide extra help to students and families.
Locally, Lorain County’s third-grade students fared well on state reading tests. Many passed the test administered in the spring and fall — 3,165 took that test and 2,783 passed, according to preliminary data from the state.
Districts including Amherst, Avon Lake, Avon, Columbia, Firelands, Keystone, Midview, North Ridgeville and Sheffield-Sheffield Lake all saw more than 90 percent of their third-graders pass the test with a score high enough for promotion.
In many cases, students who did not score well enough did so on alternative assessments — such as the Iowa Assessment, which Elyria uses, or the Northwest Evaluation Association-Measurement of Academic Progress, which is the alternative test of choice in Lorain — to show the state they are ready for fourth grade.
“The state smartly chose these alternative assessments because it’s wrong to just say let’s fail students based on one test taken on one day for two hours,” said Lorain Superintendent Tom Tucker. “I don’t know any district that doesn’t want to get students over that bar or have not already had intervention programs in place. Third grade is a key point in education and everyone knows that. The law just gave us an absolute to deal with.”
Lorain students fared well on the test. Of the 457 students who took the test, 307 students passed with a score of 392 or higher. When alternative assessments and exemptions are factored in, 90 percent of students met the threshold for promotion.
But that still means 46 students are at risk for retention, Tucker said.
“This is not insurmountable for us,” he said. “We have 39 of those students in an intensive summer reading program and at least one-third are within a couple of points of passing the test, which they will have another chance to do in July.”
The seven students not enrolled in the summer program are still being sought by school officials. Tucker said they could have moved out of the district or chose not to participate in the voluntary program.
In a district such as Lorain with a large number of students who are new to the English language or are identified as having special needs, getting 100 percent of students to pass a reading test is not realistic, Tucker said. However, that doesn’t mean that every attempt is not made.
“We have made tremendous gains in our reading program and a lot of students who have struggled in the past have made major gains,” he said.
Even in a district where the student population has fewer demographic swings, 100 percent passage is hard to come by. Take Midview, for example.
There, 213 students took the test and 201 passed. But of the 12 students who did not pass the reading assessment, seven are exempt, one students was already facing retention for matters beyond reading and one student has been placed at a facility outside the district.
That leaves three students at risk for retention. They are in a summer reading program, but Midview Superintendent Scott Goggins said they are not alone. A couple dozen other students who have been targeted for additional help are working with teachers for several hours a day.
“Our goal isn’t just passing students to the next level,” he said. “We believe in accountability. We want our kids reading at grade level, but we as educators know retention being used as intervention is not what is best for kids.”
Avon Superintendent Mike Laub said he is not a supporter of the mandate even though very few of the district’s students did not pass the reading test.
“We can identify when students are struggling as soon as kindergarten, first or second grade and put the right interventions in place without this so-called guarantee,” he said. “It’s not needed because retention is not intervention. Retaining a student does not solve the reading problem.”
John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, said it may seem as if third-grade students were arbitrarily singled out by legislators, but research has proven that third grade is a much more defining school year than people realize.
“Students who are reading on grade level by third grade can control their destiny,” he said. “Students who are socially promoted, but are behind their peers, have the tendency to fade away, drop out of school and engage in behaviors that cause other problems in society.”
Charlton said credit has to be given to teachers, administrators and districts that worked together to move students along. Reading proficiency became the priority around the state with districts from urban to suburban to rural all implementing programs aimed at boosting literacy. As such, more than 110,000 third-graders, an increase of more than 25,000 students from the previous school year, are ready for fourth grade, he said.
If a student remains in the third grade, the school must provide a high-performing reading teacher and 90 minutes of reading instruction each school day in the coming school year. A student can still take fourth-grade classes in all other subjects, if the student is ready. Schools can move students to the fourth grade in the middle of the year if the student’s reading improves.