When the General Assembly adopted the Third Grade Reading Guarantee back in 2012, it was in response to research showing that reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a “make-
When the General Assembly adopted theback in 2012, it was in response to showing that reading proficiently by the end of third grade is a “make-or-break benchmark in a child’s educational development.” Ensuring that kids (with some ) couldn’t enter fourth grade until they demonstrated minimum competency in reading was viewed as a crucial step toward making sure they didn’t fall through the cracks.
As Ohio’s new guarantee started to be implemented, though, some folks started to express concerns that. To avoid a perceived catastrophe, state policymakers permitted students to be promoted to fourth grade based on approved by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE). Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that students who were promoted using alternative assessments had the same reading capabilities as those who were promoted using state tests. For example, during the first year of implementation, reduced the number of possible retentions from . And in 2018–19, —well over 3,000 students—were promoted to fourth grade based on an alternative exam.
The pandemic put the guarantee and the rest of the state’s accountability policies in a holding pattern. But now that, so too are the calls to do away with retention. Earlier this month, the House education committee had its first hearing on , which aims to eliminate student retention under the guarantee. Given the long-term importance of early literacy, lawmakers are wise to discuss whether there are ways to improve policy and practice. But it’s also important to learn from the mistakes of the past. While high expectations and stick with them even when the going gets tough, Ohio has . Consider the following.
In 2009, in an effort to address how many students were leaving high school with aof their own readiness and success, Ohio lawmakers tasked the state board with drafting a new set of graduation requirements. In 2014, the General Assembly passed legislation that gave students in the class of 2018 and beyond three pathways to a diploma. The primary pathway required students to pass their classes and accumulate a certain number of points by passing newly created end-of-course (EOC) exams, which replaced the far too easy (OGTs). By 2016, district superintendents were sounding the alarm about an impending They warned that because the new EOCs were more demanding than OGTs, as much as one third of the class of 2018 might fail to meet graduation standards.
Like they did with the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, the Ohio General Assembly opted to ignore all the reasons they changed the law in the first place and swoop in to “save” the day. They did so by following misguided recommendations from the State Board of Education and allowing students to graduate based on, such as school attendance, course grades, a senior project, or volunteer hours. As was the case with reading assessments, the alternative graduation pathways were of questionable rigor. took advantage of the weakened alternatives to inflate their graduation rates, and districts that were high-poverty or enrolled larger percentages of students of color via the low-level pathways. Initial graduation spikes looked impressive, but the diplomas behind them weren’t necessarily accurate indicators of student readiness.
The good news is that after plenty of additional debate, the state enshrined improvedinto law. But it’s also important to note that these requirements haven’t yet been put to the test. They go into effect starting with the class of 2023—which means it’s possible we could yet see history repeat itself.
Academic Distress Commissions
Academic Distress Commissions, or ADCs, were a state-level initiative that required ODE to intervene in chronically underperforming school districts. For the most part, debate over ADC policy followed an identical pattern to graduation requirements. First, lawmakers recognized that there were several districts failing to improve academic outcomes, and that their persistent underperformance was negatively impacting students. Next, theythe law by lessening the power of the local school board and with managerial and operational authority to devise and implement a district turnaround plan. And then, when raising expectations and implementing intervention efforts was met with an inevitable firestorm of pushback, lawmakers scrambled to back down.
Last year,for the three districts currently under ADC oversight: Youngstown, Lorain, and East Cleveland. The law removes the CEO, returns power to the local school board, and charges each board with developing an academic improvement plan that contains annual and overall improvement benchmarks with minimal specific requirements. The state has since of all three districts. Unfortunately—but predictably— . For all intents and purposes, these districts are right back where they started.
To be clear, ADCs weren’t perfect. There werethat needed to be addressed. But there were also . Unfortunately, that improvement didn’t matter. Just as they did with graduation requirements and the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, state lawmakers set a high standard and then buckled when faced with political pressure.
For the last decade, Ohio has talked the talk about setting high standards for students, holding schools accountable, and making sure that academic outcomes grow increasingly better over time. But as these policies are implemented and the sometimes-unwelcome consequences kick in, Ohio leaders have failed to walk the walk. House Bill 497 could be the latest example of the state’s bad habit of backing off when the going gets tough. Hopefully, though, Ohio will finally break the habit.
Passed in 2012, Ohio’saims to ensure that all children have the foundational literacy skills needed for success in middle school and beyond. The guarantee calls for supports that start early—when students enter kindergarten—as Ohio schools must screen for language deficiencies and, if necessary, begin providing extra help. From first through third grade, schools continue to identify children struggling to read and are charged with taking steps to improve their reading skills. The guarantee then requires schools to hold back students who still have difficulty reading by the end of third grade.
In recent articles, I’ve examined the guarantee’s policies in more detail, including itsfor K–3 students and the that third graders have to meet. This piece concludes the series by looking at what occurs after a student falls short of state reading requirements in third grade.
What comes next for students is crucial. First, given fair concerns about children losing contact with peers, it’s important to offer them opportunities to move forward as soon as they demonstrate readiness. Second,and basic common sense suggest that retained children benefit most when they receive not only the “gift of time,” but also effective instruction and intervention. Retention can’t be more of the same. On both counts—offering multiple chances for promotion and encouraging successful intervention—Ohio’s reading guarantee does a very respectable job. Still, as noted below, legislators could strengthen policy in a few ways.
When do students have opportunities to move ahead? There are several points at which they can demonstrate readiness.
- Summer after third grade. Schools may choose to administer the third grade state ELA exam or an approved diagnostic test to give third graders another opportunity to meet promotional requirements. If students meet those standards during the summer, they can move to fourth grade. While most schools likely offer summer assessments, lawmakers should ensure that any third grader still working to meet standards gets another opportunity to demonstrate readiness by requiring schools to offer summer testing.
- Fall promotion to fourth grade—in other subjects. Perhaps little known is that a third grader who does not meet reading requirements can move to fourth grade in other subjects—provided they’ve demonstrated proficiency in those areas. Though still technically third graders, eligible students can move ahead right alongside their peers in math, science, and social studies.
- Mid-year promotion. Ohio requires districts to create a policy that allows promotion midway through a retained student’s repeated third grade year. State law, however, doesn’t specify the promotional standard for mid-year promotion, only saying that it may occur if “the student is reading at or above grade level.” Permitting mid-year promotions is wise, but lawmakers should clarify that students need to meet the same standards that apply in other circumstances. In the case of mid-year promotion, retained students should be expected to have achieved a passing score on the fall administration of either the state ELA exam or a state-approved diagnostic test.
- Spring or summer of the repeated third grade. Retained students who achieve promotional benchmarks in the spring or summer of their repeated third grade year can move to fourth grade in the fall.
- Promotion after two years of intensive intervention and third grade retention. For students not meeting reading standards after being retained in third grade, state law waives promotional requirements if they’ve received two years of “intensive intervention.” This exemption seems to allow promotion for some students who do not meet promotional standards after a repeated third-grade. It also explicitly allows any student to transition to fourth grade after two years of third grade retention.
Turning to the question of interventions, schools are required under state law to offer retained students “intensive interventions.” That’s an essential ingredient, but the guarantee doesn’t prescribe specific actions. The relevant passage states (emphasis mine):
The remediation services shall include intensive interventions in reading … and may include any of the following: (i) Small group instruction; (ii) Reduced teacher-student ratios; (iii) More frequent progress monitoring; (iv) Tutoring or mentoring; (v) Transition classes containing third and fourth grade students; (vi) Extended school day, week, or year; (vii) Summer reading camps.
This flexibility is likely essential, given students’ different reading deficiencies and the varying strategies that may be needed to remedy them. However, state lawmakers could take a stronger stand in a couple ways:
- Require summer offerings. Summer programing shouldn’t be a mere suggestion, but rather a required offering that gives third graders additional learning opportunities before summer testing. Legislators could even put some extra oomph behind these efforts by allocating funds to ensure summer programs are top-notch and working well for students still progressing towards reading standards.
- Require instruction that aligns with the science of reading. To reiterate a recommendation from my , lawmakers could make clear that K–3 students with a reading improvement plan are to receive instruction that aligns with the . This proposal would apply to retained students, too, since they also have an improvement plan.
The reading guarantee includes some sensible guidelines about which educators may instruct retained students. They must have at least one year of classroom experience (though not necessarily in reading) and meet one of six criteria, which include holding an elementary or middle school teaching license or having a reading endorsement. First-year educators may also teach if they meet one of the six conditions and are mentored by a more experienced teacher.
Overall, Ohio’s third grade reading guarantee has the right aims and the policy building blocks that encourage schools to prioritize early literacy and help children make progress. Screening and literacy supports start early and continue through third grade. Despite theabout them, the retention and intervention provisions ensure that students get the extra time and help they need. With some strengthening, state lawmakers can build on this foundation and make certain—“guarantee,” if you will—that all Ohio children have the ability to read.
 The law doesn’t appear to require that the intensive interventions occur in third grade, so it’s possible that some students would have received intensive interventions prior to it.
Hispanic students make up theof charter school students nationally, but research focusing specifically on Hispanic school choosers is lacking. A new report describes a qualitative case study of families in Houston, Texas, looking to determine how and why they settled on their school. While the report is framed as “why they chose to exit district schools,” it is clear that the families were, more accurately, moving toward the best fit available to them.
Researcher Julia Szabo of Rice University conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with thirty-four parents (representing thirty-one families) whose children were accepted to start sixth grade at the pseudonymously-christened Houston College Prep Charter School (HCP) in the 2019–20 school year. Sixth is the first grade offered at HCP. Study participants were recruited in the summer before the start of school during a mandatory registration day event. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish per the parents’ preference and done in person or over the phone. Interviews lasted, on average, 1.5 hours, and families received $20 honoraria for their time.
HCP is part of a large charter network in the region that has operated for more than twenty years, drawing students who are zoned for both Houston ISD and an anonymous neighboring district. HCP is a high performing school whose students far outpace both district and state averages on raw test scores and performance indices. Ninety-five percent of HCP students are Hispanic, as compared to 62 percent in Houston ISD and 80 percent in the suburban district. Eighty percent of HCP students are economically disadvantaged, the same as Houston ISD and slightly lower than the suburban district. HCP was founded on “no excuses” principles—including rigorous data-driven instruction, highly structured behavior management, and a strong focus on getting students into college. Although the terminology has been dropped in recent years, practices grounded in those principles remain. Szabo notes that HCP has a far lower exclusionary discipline rate than either of the neighboring districts, and is lower than the charter network’s average.
Ninety percent of the surveyed parents were Hispanic and 94 percent were female. The group was evenly split between U.S. born and foreign born individuals, and most of the U.S. born individuals were second-generation immigrants. Eighty-four percent of respondents had a high school diploma/GED or above, including five individuals with master’s degrees. Two out of three families were zoned for the suburban district—the rest for Houston ISD—although the number of individual elementary and middle school assignment zones represented was large.
Szabo recorded, catalogued, and coded the structured and freeform responses and presented her findings in terms of observed patterns related to risks that influenced the choice to enroll at HCP. “Present risk” factors cited by a majority of parents include school safety—specifically fights, bullying, and drug use, as observed first hand by children—and academic quality based on what they experienced in their previous schools. Examples of the latter included “a focus on the low” (meaning the lowest achievers), which left no time and teacher attention for students who could do more, class periods that featured just fifteen minutes of instruction followed by unstructured time daily, and a self-paced science class that many children completed in March and were then left to “review” on their own for two additional months until the year ended. These fears were exacerbated when parents attempted to raise concerns with teachers and school administrators but were greeted with disbelief, disrespect, or inaction.
“Future risk” factors were particularly pronounced for parents whose students would have changed school buildings between fifth and sixth grade. These included more of the same in terms of safety and academics, as well as overcrowding. Those who had experienced poor treatment from district officials were expecting even more of it in higher grades. Additionally, parents who expressed general satisfaction with their district schools for fifth grade knew of or anticipated the academic and school culture problems expressed by their peers in sixth grade. Interviewees noted all that they had heard from the news and from friends and neighbors, as well as what they had observed in their own communities about the quality of the schools around them. It is also clear that parents were looking beyond middle school as well. The outcomes of district graduates were not felt to be compatible with their own aspirations for their children. If HCP was indeed the right fit, they may never need to change schools again and could stay put in the right choice until graduation.
Although parents characterized their choice to go to HCP as an “experiment” or a “test,” it is clear that they were testing different factors than those that had raised alarm bells for them in their district schools. That is, while they did not fully know how the school culture and academic support was going to be at HCP, their research had convinced them that the risk factors they experienced or predicted were lower or nonexistent at the charter school. They were experimenting to see if they would get not only the basics of education and safety—which they expected and for which they moved—but perhaps even more supports and services beyond the basics. Parents expressed universally high academic hopes for their children and were expecting to find that their new school did, too.
There is a lot more to read and learn in this report. However, none of it feels very specific to Hispanic families. The experiences of and calculations made by these Texas parents sound, except that school choice is the default in London. Researcher Szabo fails to note that the “experiment” characterization denotes empowered parents. Having made one move, they now knew they could make another if they needed to—the feasibility of acceptable additional options notwithstanding. These parents had been given the power to put their children’s needs first, and they did so.
SOURCE: Julia Szabo, “,” American Educational Research Journal (March 2022).
The typical timeline for college-bound high school seniors is to start a few months after graduation—the first available opportunity. But is that unbroken path into college the right move for everyone? New research suggests that academic breaks after high school have both short- and long-term impacts on postsecondary enrollment and labor market outcomes. What those impacts are, however, and whether they’re positive or negative, depends on students’ academic readiness for college.
Researchers Nicolás de Roux and Evan Riehl from Bogota’s Universidad de los Andes and Cornell University, respectively, take advantage of a natural experiment using data from various regions of Colombia. While the majority of high schools in the country begin their academic years in January, approximately 500 in two regions traditionally operated on a schedule that began in September. Between 2008 and 2010, a majority of those schools transitioned to the January calendar to align with the rest of the country. The transition was gradual, occurring over two school years. As a result, graduation day for more than 26,000 high schoolers in 2009 was delayed by two months—too late for the September college admission window that they traditionally used and too early for the January window used by graduates in the rest of the country. Thus, even students who were qualified and wanted to attend college were forced to delay enrollment for three months longer than usual.
De Roux and Riehl compare these delayed enrollees’ postsecondary enrollment patterns and labor market outcomes with 2009 graduates in other parts of Colombia who were able to move immediately on to college and with regional peers who remained on the old schedule.
The lead finding was that the calendar shift reduced the number of students who started college at the first opportunity following graduation, even though the break was relatively short and had been anticipated. Relative to comparison schools, the immediate college enrollment rate fell by about 5 percentage points among all schools in the regions where the calendar switch occurred.
Only about half the students who were forced to delay entry went on to enroll in college at all, while others delayed for nearly two years. That is not unheard of in Colombia, the researchers note, but the magnitude of delayers—and those who never enroll—in these regions was far higher than anywhere else historically. The enforced break seems to be the culprit, although why an additional three months should have this dramatic an impact is unable to be clarified.
College persistence, interestingly, did not seem to change from historic rates despite this huge drop-off in attendance, suggesting that students who did not enroll due to the break were highly likely to have dropped out before completing had they attended.
On the labor market side and at seven years post-graduation, de Roux and Riehl observed very little difference in the mean monthly earnings of graduates from schools who switched calendars compared to peers in regions whose schools were always on that calendar. In other words, despite the larger number of no-shows in college, future earnings for the cohort affected by the schedule change were largely the same as for cohorts whose academic journeys were not interrupted. This adds further credence to the hypothesis that many of the delayers, or no-shows, would have dropped out anyway.
However, graduates in regions where most schools switched to the new calendar but their specific schools stayed on the old calendar experienced a 5 percent reduction in mean monthly earnings, as compared to peers in those other regions. This indicated to the researchers that these students were harmed by the break and the reduced likelihood of attending college. The schools that stayed on the old schedule were mostly private and their students came from higher economic status and had higher exit exam scores than the switching schools, leading de Roux and Riehl to investigate academic preparation as a possible mechanism driving the outcomes observed.
Adjusting for exit exam scores, students in the affected regions who were better prepared for college experienced more negative returns by forgoing college than did those who were less-prepared. That is, students who had been planning to go to college straight from high school—and were most academically ready—experienced more harm from the calendar switch. About half went to college eventually, but with a delay, and the other half moved on with their lives without the traditional postsecondary sojourn. Long-term earnings suffered as a result. Those who were less academically ready—but were planning for immediate college enrollment out of tradition or habit—were likely helped by the delay. About half of those students went immediately into the workforce instead, ending up in the same place as their no-college peers but without the expense of tuition and the unproductive time spent on a college path that would end up producing no degree.
All of this combines to reinforce the idea that giving college the “old college try” is not the best choice for everyone. Completion of a postsecondary degree is what matters most, and preparation is key to completion. Those who are ready seem to benefit from an uninterrupted academic journey; those who are not are likely to benefit from a breather, a rethink, or some expert advice with lots of options (especially work options) in mind.
SOURCE: Nicolás de Roux and Evan Riehl, “Disrupted academic careers: The returns to time off after high school,” Journal of Development Economics (February 2022).
Sidestepping accountability, the sequel: The sad similarities between graduation requirements and academic distress commissions
Ohio education policy has seen its fair share of controversy in recent years, but there are two policies in particular that have dominated news cycles: graduation requirements and academic distress commissions (ADCs).
Here at Fordham, we’ve written a considerable amount on both topics. And while it’s easy to get lost in the weeds, particularly as new proposals crop up and are debated, it’s important to take a step back every now and then and look at the big picture.
Unfortunately, taking a step back reveals that graduation requirements and ADCs have become the newest entries on a long list of examples of Ohio policymakers sidestepping accountability. Back in 2017, I wrote about several policies that lawmakers eagerly passed and then quickly backed away from when political pressure and consequences surfaced. These included retention requirements for the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, “safe harbor” from consequences associated with state report card ratings, and, yes, graduation requirements.
Fast forward to 2019, and not much has changed. The State Board of Education is still slow-walking the promotion score on the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, and state report cards are still under attack. But the situation with graduation requirements has actually gotten worse. That’s because what was just a proposal back in 2017—weak graduation alternatives recommended by the state board that would allow students to graduate based on non-academic measures like attendance and community service—has been temporarily enshrined in state law.
Last year, the class of 2018 received diplomas based on these softened requirements. The classes of 2019 and 2020 have the same opportunity. When all is said and done, Ohio will have tens of thousands of students who graduated under requirements that are the antithesis of the high standards called for in the bipartisan reform bill passed back in 2009 that scrapped the low-level Ohio Graduation Tests and replaced them with a tougher set of state exams that also included a rigorous career-technical pathway. In just ten short years, policymakers have undone everything they set out to do with graduation requirements.
Of course, boomeranging policy is the least of our concerns. What matters is how policy affects students, and things don’t look good on that front. Weak graduation requirements like the ones currently in law lead to meaningless diplomas. And when diplomas are meaningless, students pay the price: remedial college classes that cost money, waste time, and decrease the chances of completion, a constant struggle to keep up with better-prepared peers, and difficulty finding and keeping a well-paying job are just a few of the consequences that negatively impact the same outcomes a high school diploma is supposed to make possible.
Even worse, these consequences hit poor and minority students the hardest. Graduation data from the class of 2018 suggest that Ohio’s low-income students likely used the weaker graduation options more frequently than their peers. There’s also a correlation between districts that enroll more students of color, either black or Hispanic, and those that were more likely to allow students to graduate via the alternatives. Some folks might argue that such data are evidence that softened requirements are needed. At Fordham, we believe that’s nothing more than the soft bigotry of low expectations. Plenty of students face significant challenges, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of meeting state standards.
Which brings us to ADCs, a mechanism that requires the state to intervene in chronically underperforming school districts. So far, this policy has followed a pattern that’s almost identical to what happened with graduation requirements. First, legislators realized that the law wasn’t rigorous enough. Next, the General Assembly significantly strengthened the state’s level of intervention and the standards for poor performing districts. Then a firestorm erupted, this time with dire warnings of “chaos” and “dysfunction”—just shy of the “apocalypse,” as critics of graduation standards put it—proclaimed by adults angry at losing power, and with the very real indictment that they have failed in their responsibility to serve students. In response, lawmakers were sent scrambling. Since then, they’ve produced several solutions that are, unsurprisingly, completely at odds with the original purpose of an ADC—to intervene on behalf of students trapped in academically languishing schools and to incentivize struggling districts to improve.
To be sure, the parallel between graduation requirements and ADCs isn’t perfect. There are some flaws with ADCs, and those problems need to be addressed. But for the most part, both policies are further evidence that Ohio has a hard time sticking things out when the going gets tough. That’s a shame. Buckeye students deserve lawmakers who are committed to working in their best interest, regardless of the pressure they get from other adults.