Gov. John Kasich wants schools to make sure students can read by the time they leave third grade, but says schools should do that without new state funding. He’s calling it a third-grade reading guarantee.
But the researcher who wrote a report the Kasich administration cites in support of the proposal says that without other changes and perhaps more money for schools, the third-grade reading guarantee is unlikely to leave children better off.
Professor Donald Hernandez of City University of New York’s Hunter College says policymakers who focus only on getting children to pass the third-grade test risk leaving kids adrift once they’re over that testing hump.
“It’s not going to be effective in the long run and certainly it’s not effective for children to just think of a one-time boost,” he says.
The report looked at a national database of nearly 4,000 students born between 1979 and 1989 and found that students who do not read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school by age 19 than students who can read proficiently.
The picture is even worse for children living in poverty. They are three times more likely to drop out of school if not reading well by third grade.
Kasich’s third-grade reading guarantee proposal calls for schools to begin testing children’s reading skills in kindergarten. Schools would have to file plans for how they’d help kindergarteners and first graders who struggle to read. Second-grade struggling readers would be enrolled in summer school. And third graders who struggle to read would get extra help until they are reading on grade level.
|% Proficient – 4th Grade Reading|
|Ohio||34%||34% (no significant difference from 2002)|
|Indiana||33%||33% (no significant difference from 2002)|
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress. *s indicate fourth grade reading proficiency rates that are significantly different from Ohio’s for the given year.
Here’s the key part: Third graders reading below grade level for two years who also fail the third-grade reading test must be held back – with certain exceptions for special education and English language-learning students.
This kind of “you must pass the test to be promoted” policy comes into vogue periodically. Ohio tried to enact one in 1997, but it was eventually watered down and has had little effect on improving Ohio students’ performance.
About one-third of Ohio fourth graders scores are on grade level in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. That percentage hasn’t changed significantly over the past ten years.
Several states including Florida and Texas have had third-grade reading requirements in place for about a decade. Florida has seen the percentage of fourth graders who can read at a fourth grade level rise since putting the requirement in place, as measured by the NAEP. Texas has not.
According to the non-partisan Education Commission of the States, holding a student back isn’t the magic fix for improving reading education. The states and school districts that have seen the most success in requiring students to pass a reading test to advance to the next grade level generally pair that requirement with close monitoring of small class sizes and intensive, personalized help.
The commission says that while retention policies may generate “a sense of urgency for improving early reading proficiency, similar improvements in student achievement might well be achieved through identification and intervention — without the need for retention.”
Just ask Karen Carney. She’s been teaching for 27 years in the Campbell schools near Youngstown. She now teaches third grade.
Carney has mixed feelings about the proposed third-grade reading guarantee. She thinks it could focus teachers and administrators on making sure students learn to read.
“Personally, I think you at least owe it to that student to hold them back and work with them and give them the opportunity to get that knowledge in order to move on. Because what happens if you don’t have the basic concepts in place? Somewhere along the line that person will suffer,” she says.
But she also worries that schools might not have the staff to help every struggling student, and that some children, no matter how much help they’re given, may not be ready to read by the end of third grade.
“It’s a good starting point and a good way to maybe address problems early on and try to use that data to help that student, but again the manpower and the knowledge base of teachers and the commitment of a district and parents and all that… Those are huge hurdles,” she says.
Ohio Preschool Funding and Enrollment
Hernandez, the Hunter College professor, says what children really need to get on the right track with reading is strong preschool programs that are closely tied to their first few grades of elementary school. And they need strong teachers after third grade too, he says, if we want them to continue to learn.
But Ohio has seen steep cuts in state-funded preschool programs. Less than 2 percent of Ohio 3 and 4-year olds attended state-funded preschool last year. And the National Institute for Early Education Research says Ohio meets the fewest number of national benchmarks for quality preschool of any state.
Spending more on just preschool or just early elementary reading tutors isn’t going to help children long-term, Hernandez says.
“It’s ephemeral unless the really deeper changes are made,” he says. ”Those changes are not free… but on the other hand, they’re not terribly expensive and there are enormous returns on investment in the longer run.”