Enacted in 2012 under the leadership of Governor John Kasich, Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee included a retention requirement aimed at ending “social promotion” the misguided practice of passing students along even though they are academically unprepared for their next step. Yet after much debate in recent years, state lawmakers chose to weaken Ohio’s retention policy via the recently passed state budget bill. House lawmakers led the charge, voting to outright ditch the requirement. The Senate reversed that repeal in its version of the budget. But the final legislation backs off mandatory retention by creating a significant loophole that allows schools to avoid retaining struggling readers as long as their parents request promotion to fourth grade.
A quick refresher: Ohio schools have been required to retain third graders who do not meet promotional standards on state reading exams or an alternative assessment. Schools have also been required to provide intensive interventions to help retained students catch up. Between 2013–14 and 2018–19, roughly 3 to 5 percent of third graders were retained under this policy. A recent study from the Ohio Education Research Center at Ohio State University found that retention worked as intended. Retained students made significant academic gains compared to similar students who just narrowly passed the promotional bar. This positive finding is consistent with results from Florida, Indiana, and Mississippi, states that also have third-grade retention laws on the books.
Despite the strong evidence that it benefits children, and despite massive learning loss stemming from the pandemic, Ohio legislators still chose to gut this policy. Why so? The driving force was district administrators and teachers unions that pushed to remove retention, a policy that—while benefitting children—holds them more accountable for literacy outcomes. With a retention requirement, schools are pushed to improve literacy instruction in the early grades and “guarantee” that every child reads proficiently by the end of third grade. Without it, there isn’t much accountability for reading outcomes at this critical checkpoint in a student’s education. That allows adults to breathe easier, but does little good for students.
During the policy debates, detractors didn’t just say they wanted less accountability. They also trotted out several other reasons for pulling the plug, one of which was parent involvement. Representative Gayle Manning, co-sponsor of standalone House legislation eliminating retention, said, “I guess my problem is why we allow the government to make the decision [to retain a child] instead of the parent.” Whether parental agency was a genuine concern—especially from the education establishment—is highly questionable, given their opposition to school choice policies that empower families. Nevertheless, the argument resonated with some lawmakers and clearly shaped the final version of the budget bill.
As noted at the top, lawmakers ended strict mandatory retention through a parental override provision. Specifically, schools are excused from holding back a third grader if:
“A student’s parent or guardian, in consultation with the student’s reading teacher and building principal, requests that the student, regardless of if the student is reading at grade level, be promoted to the fourth grade.”
In practice, the new process is likely to look something like this: (1) parents are notified that their child did not meet the state’s third grade reading standards; (2) parents and school officials meet (or maybe even just trade emails) to discuss next steps; (3) parents, likely following advice from educators, make a request for promotion.
The legislation further stipulates:
“A student who is promoted [via parental request] shall continue to receive intensive reading instruction in the same manner as a student retained under this section until the student is able to read at grade level.”
This provision—a wise addition—provides some hope that students who move to fourth grade via parental request will still receive some form of “intensive reading instruction.” It also requires schools to provide these extra supports into middle or high school if a student remains below grade level in reading.
An affirmative parental request for promotion is better than an outright elimination of the requirement, but only barely so. It could easily become an avenue for schools to avoid retention and intervention. Given their well-known aversion to holding students back, schools are apt to pressure parents into making a request. A few schools might even disregard these requirements and promote children anyway. How many schools followed temporary law in 2021–22 that required consultation with parents regarding third grade retention? In many districts—Akron, Cincinnati, and Youngstown among them—100 percent of students were promoted that year. Did not one parent have concerns about promoting their child? Finally, whether schools continue to provide continuing “intensive reading instruction” remains uncertain.
To safeguard against abuse or neglect, the newly restructured—and one hopes more muscular—Department of Education and Workforce (DEW) needs to ensure these laws are being followed by schools. At a basic level, the agency should check whether schools are indeed consulting with parents and that a parental request for promotion is on file. It should release an annual public report regarding compliance with these provisions. It should also ensure that students promoted via parent override do in fact receive intensive reading instruction. DEW should also support parents by making available information about the importance of literacy and how to navigate a consultation with their school. Finally, if schools are not complying with these laws, it should consider penalties or corrective action.
Making sure that all children read fluently remains a critical goal for Ohio. Softening retention does nothing to achieve that objective or solve the underlying problem of reading failure. It also directly counters many of the other bold literacy reforms in this year’s budget. What it does do, however, is ease up on schools, while putting students at-risk of further academic struggle in middle and high school. Backing off mandatory third grade retention was a policy blunder. Now it’ll be up to parents and state officials at DEW to make sure that Ohio schools are helping all children read proficiently.
 The retention law was suspended in 2019–20, 2020–21, and 2021–22 via Covid-related legislation. While the law was in effect for 2022–23, the budget bill—for this year only—allows schools to promote students who would otherwise be retained (unless a parent requests retention).