Nothing better exemplifies the random and absurd manner in which the Ohio Legislature creates laws than Senator Peggy Lehner’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee. As the law’s title suggests, it was designed to ensure that all students would be reading at grade level on state approved assessments by the end of third grade or face repeating the grade. Anyone with an ounce of sense knows no law could guarantee such a thing. But, guarantee it she did.
Since the law’s enactment, there has never been a year when all of Ohio’s third grade students have achieved the established standard. Not once. Nor will there ever be. So, the only thing it has guaranteed is that third graders who have not earned a randomly established “passing” score on a reading test are subjected to repeating the third grade.
Now, retaining students might be an acceptable strategy if we could be sure that doing so will positively impact their lives. But, the research gives us no such assurance.
The fact is, a person can find data supporting both the benefits and the dangers of retaining students. But, one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on the topic, authored by Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew, titled “The Scarring Effects of Primary-Grade Retention? A Study of Cumulative Advantage in an Educational Career,” shows that students who are retained in kindergarten through fifth grade are 60 percent less likely to graduate than kids with similar backgrounds who aren’t retained.
Not exactly a compelling argument for failing students because of a poor reading test score, is it?
As if that isn’t bad enough, since the law’s inception, bureaucrats have repeatedly increased the “passing” score students must achieve to be deemed successful, usually under the insane notion that next year’s class should be held to a higher standard than last year’s. These changes have been debated much like you and I might discuss what we should eat for dinner. They aren’t based on any credible research. They are most often determined by how certain people in power feel things should be done. That is certainly no way to make decisions that impact children’s lives.
To further illustrate how ridiculously random this process is, while the standards are usually increased annually, the passing score on one of the state approved tests was actually decreased this year.
What this means is that a child who was in the third grade last year, but failed to achieve last year’s necessary passing score on that test, was retained. However, it is quite possible that had he/she been in third grade this year under the lesser “passing” standard, he/she could have “passed” the test and been moved to fourth grade with the same test score he/she earned last year. Confused yet? Well, don’t think for a moment kids weren’t caught in this web.
So, the decision about whether or not to retain two different students from two different years was not based on differences in their skills, but solely on the year in which they were in the third grade. That is shameful.
If we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that repeating a grade is good for kids, then it might be OK to play this little game. But, we don’t, and kids’ lives are too valuable to be impacted by political whims. And, I don’t even want to hear the excuse that not a lot of kids were caught in this web. One is too many, especially if that one is your child.
The Peggy Lehners of the world will point to the research that shows that a child who is not reading at grade level by the end of third grade will more often than not struggle academically in subsequent years. And, she would be correct.
But, what she can’t do is point to research suggesting that a child’s third grade reading ability is the only determining factor in his or her future success, because that research doesn’t exist. Many factors besides reading ability are contributors to our success, and Lehner’s bill ignores every other one of them.
So, what she has done, with the support of many of her legislative pals, is subject innocent children to spending an extra year in school under the flawed notion that it will help them, when it may actually harm their chance at future success. Then, while the children suffer the consequences of this bill, she cavalierly moves on to create more laws that defy logic. Just because she can.
And, for some reason we continue to let her get away with it.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.