In 2012, Ohio enacted the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, comprehensive legislation to improve reading proficiency. The governor and state superintendent saw this as an opportunity “to ensure that every struggling reader get the support he or she needs to be able to learn and achieve.”
Beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, third-grade students who did not meet a minimum standard for promotion on the Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA) would be retained in third grade.
But implementation of the measure went well beyond that, pressing schools, school districts and communities to take the actions necessary to fulfill a “guarantee” given to students and their families. Each year from kindergarten through third grade, a student’s reading skills are assessed at the beginning of the year. If a student is reading below grade level, the school creates an individualized reading improvement plan for the child and provides extra reading help as long as it is needed. If the student still is struggling as he or she enters third grade, assistance is ramped up, including help from a specially trained teacher. Students who still do not meet the requirement for promotion at the end of third grade are held back. But retention does not mean “more of the same,” as has often been the case in the past, with predictably poor results. Retained students receive 90 minutes of reading instruction per day from a high-performing reading teacher. If the student is ready, he or she is allowed to take fourth-grade classes in all other subjects, and schools can move students to the fourth grade in the middle of year if reading improves.
The intensive efforts prompted by the Third Grade Reading Guarantee are paying off. In the 2012-2013 school year, 88.2 percent of eligible third-grade students met the promotion threshold; the proportion was much lower in many of the urban districts. By the end of the 2013-2014 school year, 95.8 percent of third graders met the promotion threshold. Urban districts saw considerable improvement, with some such as Akron and Cincinnati even exceeding the statewide figure. A stunning example: In the fall of 2013, 58 percent of Cleveland third graders were at risk; that number was steadily reduced throughout the school year, and in the end only 15 percent were retained.
What led to the improvements? Certainly, there was a sense of urgency, as districts faced the possibility of retaining large numbers of children. Extra time spent on reading was a major element, and professional development and coaching for teachers also played an important role.
Other approaches also are helping students succeed:
- Family engagement: Parents are acknowledged as essential partners in helping their children succeed. The law requires that they be advised promptly if students are struggling and be included in planning for how to improve the outcomes. In Columbus, parents of struggling students were invited to Saturday “Family Literacy Academies,” and the sessions were repeated on cable television for broader reach. The state Department of Education offers tools and information to help parents know what to expect and learn how to help their children at each grade level.
- Summer learning: All of the major urban districts used summer learning programs to help struggling readers make the progress needed to be promoted and identified those programs as a key factor in improvement. An example: In Dayton, efforts already were underway to make summer a time of continued learning for all children. Donated books, the library’s Summer Reading Club and a research-based summer home visiting program for rising kindergartners were among the strategies being used. This past summer, Dayton expanded its capacity, working with BELL and Freedom School sites to serve 800 additional students. BELL data analysis showed an average gain of 3.3 months in reading.
- Attendance: Some school districts, including Cleveland and Dayton, are working with Attendance Works, and the Ohio Department of Education has just updated its online school and district report cards to provide chronic absenteeism data.
- Volunteerism: Columbus’s Reading Buddies program recruited 800 volunteers who worked with struggling readers twice a week to overcome individual skill deficits.
Next steps on the Third Grade Reading Guarantee? About 5,000 third graders were retained going into the 2014-2015 school year. In addition to these students’ receiving the required additional supports and services, the state plans to work with districts to analyze what happened with these students, including which approaches worked and which did not, and to provide technical assistance to help the districts shape more effective efforts in the future. There also is strong interest in expanding early childhood education programming and summer learning opportunities as a way to get in front of the problem and put and keep children on a path to reading success.
The high profile of early literacy that has come with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee holds promise for even greater commitment to and broad-based engagement in the already-impressive efforts of Ohio communities in the GLR Communities Network:
- Cincinnati: Read On! is a regional effort led by The Strive Partnership and the Northern Kentucky Education Council, in partnership with United Way of Greater Cincinnati, with a notably strong and inclusive sponsoring coalition. The Read On! Venture Philanthropy Fund was created to make investments that can help achieve early reading success for every child in the region, including support for the “Preschool Promise” to increase access to high-quality child care and early education programs.
Dayton: Also a part of the Strive Together Cradle to Career Network, Dayton’s ReadySetSoar is the component of the Learn to Earn Dayton initiative that focuses on assuring that children are “ready for kindergarten” and that every child is reading well in the third grade. The effort is led by an Executive Committee that includes the mayor, a county commissioner, and leaders from business, public education, higher education, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. The mayor has declared Dayton a “City of Learners.”
 Exemptions from the calculation include students on Individual Education Plans, English Language Learners, students with significant cognitive disabilities and those previously retained.