Ohio’s recent focus on early literacy is largely thanks to Governor DeWine’s budget recommendations, which contain a bold plan to boost reading achievement in Ohio. His proposal would require schools to use high-quality curricula and instructional materials aligned with the science of reading, and would invest millions in state funding to help schools purchase said curriculum and provide professional development and literacy coaches to support teachers.
The governor’s proposal, however, is just the first of many steps in the state budget cycle. Anything he proposes must also earn the approval of the House and Senate before it becomes law. The good news is that House lawmakers preserved many of the governor’s recommendations in their recently released version of the budget, including the adoption of high-quality reading curricula. The bad news is that they also would eliminate the retention requirement of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.
Over the years, we at Fordham have repeatedly explained why moving away from retention-and-intervention would be a huge mistake. But we’d be remiss not to also point out that backing away from a rigorous policy intended to help kids and hold schools accountable for student progress is very on brand for Ohio lawmakers and leaders. In fact, Ohio has a long history of going all-in on big education policy changes and then backing off when it comes time to implement them.
Last year, during yet another attempt to eliminate third grade retention, I wrote an analysis of how two of Ohio’s most significant education reforms to date—graduation requirements and school improvement efforts in the form of Academic Distress Commissions—mirror the current roller coaster of third grade reading retention. Since lawmakers are back to their old tricks, it unfortunately seems necessary to revisit that analysis of Ohio’s very bad habit of sidestepping high expectations and accountability. Let’s take a look.
In 2009, in an effort to address how many students were leaving high school with a false impression of their own readiness for future success, Ohio lawmakers tasked the state board with drafting a new set of graduation requirements. In 2014, the General Assembly passed legislation that offered students in the class of 2018 and beyond three pathways to a diploma. The primary pathway required students to accumulate a certain number of points by passing newly created End of Course (EOC) exams, which replaced the far too easy Ohio Graduation Tests (OGTs). The other pathways required students to achieve a certain score on a college admissions exam or meet career-technical requirements. But by 2016, district superintendents were sounding the alarm about an impending graduation “apocalypse.” They warned that, because the new EOCs were more demanding than OGTs, as much as a third of the class of 2018 might fail to meet graduation standards.
Much like they’re currently doing with third grade reading retention, legislators opted to ignore the reasons they changed the law in the first place and swooped in to “save” the day. They did so by following recommendations from the state board and allowing students to graduate based on alternative pathways such as school attendance, course grades, a senior project, or volunteer hours. These pathways were of abysmal rigor, and several districts took advantage to inflate their graduation rates.
The good news is that, after plenty of additional debate, the state enshrined improved graduation requirements into law. But the roller coaster ride could have been avoided if legislators had stuck with the initial plan.
Academic Distress Commissions
Academic Distress Commissions, or ADCs, are a state-level initiative that required Ohio to intervene in chronically underperforming school districts. For the most part, debate over ADC policy followed an identical pattern to graduation requirements. First, state leaders—including former Governor Kasich—recognized that there were several districts failing to improve academic outcomes, and their persistent underperformance was negatively impacting students. Next, lawmakers significantly strengthened the law by lessening the power of local school boards and empowering CEOs with managerial and operational authority to devise and implement a district turnaround plan. And then, when raising expectations and implementing intervention efforts were met with a firestorm of pushback, lawmakers scrambled to back down.
In 2021, lawmakers used the state budget to create an easy off-ramp for the three districts that were under ADC oversight: Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland. The law removed the CEOs, returned power to local school boards, and charged each board with developing an academic improvement plan that contains annual and overall improvement benchmarks with minimal specific requirements. Unfortunately—but predictably—the approved plans don’t actually promise much improvement. Results from the most recent state report cards offer some bright spots—like Lorain’s four-star rating on the progress component—but mostly indicate that these districts still aren’t improving as quickly as they need to be. For all intents and purposes, they’re right back where they started, and kids are no better off.
Recent efforts to repeal third grade reading retention mandates are ill-advised. They ignore a trove of research proving that retention, when coupled with rigorous intervention, can benefit students in the short and long term. They ignore the social and emotional impacts of social promotion. Worst of all, they solidify Ohio as the kind of place where leaders and lawmakers talk a big talk about improving education but repeatedly fail to walk the walk. This is likely why the Buckeye State has made so little progress over time on measures like the Nation’s Report Card. Ohio’s students deserve better than this.