Too many students in Ohio are off-track—way off-track—in terms of meeting grade-level math and reading standards. Last school year, 32 percent of students statewide scored “limited”—the lowest achievement mark—on state math exams, while 20 percent scored at that level in English language arts (ELA). In big-city districts such as Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton, a staggering 45 to 50 percent of students scored limited, while numbers were just as grim in places like Lima, Lorain, and Middletown. Even in some affluent districts, 10 to 20 percent of students scored limited on last year’s assessments.
Let us pause and consider what a “limited” result entails. In somewhat polite terms, the state describes limited students as demonstrating “minimal command” of academic standards and having no more than an “emerging ability” to read, write, and do math at grade level. Without serious interventions, such students are on pathways to illiteracy and innumeracy as adults. Many will struggle to secure decent jobs, and tragically some are likely to end up on public assistance or in the criminal justice system.
State leaders have a responsibility to ensure that all Ohio students have the supports and interventions necessary to exit high school with core academic skills. Recognizing this duty, policymakers have pursued multiple avenues to bolster student learning. These include a transparent state rating system that puts healthy pressure on schools to boost achievement. It’s also included attempts to turn around low-performing schoolsand districts. Ohio has ratcheted up funding—especially for high-poverty schools—to make sure that students have access to extra supports. Just this year, Governor DeWine and the legislature enacted bold literacy reforms that now require schools to adopt high-quality curricula aligned to the science of reading, as well as millions set aside for teacher professional development.
These are all crucial efforts. But more still needs to be done, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic which has only increased the number of low-achieving students in the state. To that end, Ohio Senator Andrew Brenner introduced legislation (SB 162) in late September that would further advance statewide efforts to ensure that struggling students get the help they need. The bill has four key elements.
- Requires schools to provide academic interventions to any student who scores limited on state math and/or ELA exams. One pandemic-era lesson is that, if supplemental services are optional for schools and students, many of the students who most need the extra supports won’t get them. SB 162 would remove uncertainty about whether schools offer (and low-achieving students receive) interventions. Instead, all public schools would be required to provide students with academic supports starting in the year following a limited result on a state exam. Interventions would continue until students score above limited on a state or diagnostic assessment that applies to her grade level.
- Provides schools with flexibility about specific interventions. Recognizing that students may need varying types of support, SB 162 is not overly prescriptive about what interventions schools must provide. The bill does list some possibilities such as high-dosage tutoring, extended learning time, and other “academically-centered” supports. And it also wisely stipulates that all interventions must be “evidence-based” and that ELA interventions, in particular, must align to the science of reading. The bill also aptly notes that interventions are not to supplant core classroom instruction. Beyond those guidelines, schools have leeway to decide how to structure interventions for low-achieving students.
- Calls on the Department of Education and Workforce (DEW) to conduct reviews of schools’ interventions. One concern is that this requirement could become another check-box routine for schools. To guard against this, SB 162 requires DEW to randomly select 5 percent of Ohio districts, charters, and STEM schools each year, and conduct an onsite review of their academic interventions. These reviews would examine the types of interventions that schools provide as well as include an assessment of their quality. A publicly available report of each school’s interventions must be completed within six weeks of the review. This audit-type provision is crucial, as it can motivate schools to take the initiative seriously. The public reporting could help identify and disseminate best practices, while also flagging schools implementing low-quality interventions and offering recommendations for improvement.
- Requires parental notification and ongoing engagement. As surveys from Learning Heroes indicate, parents may be unaware that their child is performing at such dangerously low levels. Some may not receive their child’s state assessment results or have a clear sense of what they mean; others may be misled by their child’s grade-inflated report cards. Importantly, SB 162 requires schools to notify parents that their child scored limited and that he or she will receive academic interventions. The bill also requires schools to update parents periodically about the interventions their child receives, another potential check—this time from parents—on the quality of the services provided by schools.
Overall, SB 162 is a solid piece of legislation that would help address academic failure. While a strong start, the bill could be strengthened in three ways: (1) Add consequences if schools are not taking their responsibility seriously and failing to provide interventions to limited students. This would signal the importance of intervening, while also help to ensure that schools take immediate steps to serve low-achieving students if they are not doing so. (2) Remove the provision allowing schools to “exit” students from interventions based on a diagnostic test result. This would guard against “gaming” through use of potentially-less-rigorous diagnostics, and also maintain a clear target that must be met before schools are released from their obligation to intervene. (3) Given the importance of carrying out rigorous intervention reviews, legislators should consider adding a modest appropriation that would support DEW’s efforts.
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It’s downright troubling that so many Ohio students have such great difficulty with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even more scandalous is the fact that struggling students tend to remain stuck at such low levels as they progress through school. According to state data cited by Senator Brenner, almost two in three of the students who posted a “limited” score on last year’s state exams scored at that very same level in the year prior. We must do better as a state to make sure that struggling students don’t fall through the cracks. If passed, SB 162 would be another important step forward in ensuring that all Ohio students are on-track to a brighter future.
 In 2018–19, 25 percent of students statewide were limited in math, and 16 percent were limited in ELA.
 The bill language seems to indicate that an entire district would be up for review if selected. It would be a very heavy lift for DEW to review all of, e.g., Columbus’s schools in a single year if drawn by lot. Legislators should tweak the language to call for a random selection of 5 percent of “district-run schools, charter schools, and STEM schools,” which would amount to roughly 175 individual schools reviewed per year.