Law more stringent on elementary readers

The percentage of third graders held held from fourth grade could quadruple in some local school districts when a new state law takes effect.

Some school officials said they are concerned with the legislation that was created to ensure all Ohio students are reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. They said it has added unfunded expenses and holding back children could cause problems for them in the future.

Starting with students entering the third grade in the 2013-14 school year, all students must demonstrate a certain level of competency in reading before advancing to the fourth grade, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

Most provisions of the new law are in place this school year, beginning with a reading diagnostics assessment that must be given to all students in grades K-3 by Sept. 30 to track the student’s reading level.

Sandra Bussell, director of elementary programs for Hamilton schools, said the state has also mandated the diagnostics assessment be given one-on-one for students in grades K-1. She said the district is incurring more than $13,500 in costs to hire 10-12 retired reading teachers and Title I teachers to conduct the one-on-one tests for about 1,800 students.

School districts must notify parents in writing within 60 days of the test whether their child is on track and develop a plan for providing extra help and intervention, according to Betsy Carter, senior director of learning at Middletown City Schools.

“There will be a parent letter attached to the intervention form with the kid’s score, services they are (currently) getting and what help is available,” Bussell said, likely the week of Oct. 1. “Families of students who aren’t reading at grade level will know immediately and can provide intervention; I see that as a positive.”

The state law will require students to be held back that are not adept at reading at the end of the third grade after participating in an intervention plan for two years. Bussell said a pupil exiting the third grade that scores below Proficient on the Ohio Achievement Assessments’ English Language Arts Assessment and didn’t attend summer school will be recommended to be held back.

Certain students who are limited English proficient (LEP) and special education students may be exempted, according to ODE.

Bussell said on average, Hamilton has to retain about 4.2 percent of third grade students each year. Retention rates for grades K-2 in Hamilton are: 8.9 percent in kindergarten; 7.6 percent in first grade; and 2 percent in second grade.

“We predict based on proficient scores, we’re looking at 18 percent to retain in third grade,” Bussell said. “It’s a great concern. By identifying the student on the diagnostics we need to be proactive.”

Lani Wildow, curriculum director at Fairfield City Schools, said the newest part of the law for Fairfield will be holding back the students.

“We don’t typically retain students unless it’s truly in the student’s best interest,” Wildow said. “Instead we work to provide services at the level each student needs. Research shows there’s a strong correlation between high school dropouts and being retained, so we work to meet students where they are, provide the interventions they need, and still expose them to grade level content in an effort to close the achievement gap.”

According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, if children cannot read well by the third grade then they are four times as likely to drop out of school. Under Ohio’s standards, 43 percent of fourth graders are considered advanced in reading, but this number falls to just 9 percent under the recognized National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Officials in Fairfield already conduct annual, one-on-one screenings of all students in grades K-4, according to Wildow. She said parents are notified of the results and can give consent for their child to be part of the district’s reading center program, which pulls students out of class to meet in small groups for 30 minutes of instruction based on specific skills.

“We have choices of small group instruction, reduced student-teacher ratios, more frequently monitoring students, tutoring or mentoring programs, offering transition classes with third and fourth graders, extending the school day, week, or year, and summer reading programs,” Wildow said of the services schools will have to provide under the new law.

Carter said Middletown has been preparing for the changes with the creation of a Third Grade Guarantee team consisting of literacy coordinators, literacy coaches, special education coordinators, principals and teachers.

“The majority of the required elements will not be new practices for Middletown as the district already has an extensive assessment and intervention system in place,” Carter said.

Carter said with the help of Title I and English as Second Language tutors and special education teachers, the district provides intervention through differentiated instruction, small groups and after-school intervention in the elementary buildings.

At the Lakota Local School District, officials are preparing to apply for a portion of $13 million in grants the Ohio Department of Education is making available to school districts for the additional tutoring and intervention of students, according to Patricia Fong, chief academic administrator of data, assessment and core instruction for Lakota.

At Lakota, Fong said students are able to move in and out of intervention groups as their skills improve and needs change. She said a tutoring and enrichment block is also built into grades K-6.

“Tutoring requires more human resources; this (new law) will put a strain on the budgets of many school districts,” Fong said. “Many times (grants) look at school districts overall and prioritize on financial need; Lakota has been overlooked before because of needier schools.”

In Hamilton, Bussell said the cost of offering after-school intervention will be increasing because it will now be offered earlier in the school year and to more children. She said typically the intervention didn’t begin until January of each year but now will begin in October. As well, this will be the first year for students in grades 1-2 to have intervention, which previously began in grades 3-6.

“In K-3 you’re learning how to read, and in grades 4 and up you’re reading to learn,” Bussell said.

Fong said school districts have three options if a student doesn’t pass their OAA test: have a team meeting with parents, teacher and principal to provide evidence the student is academically ready to move up; promote the student with an intense intervention plan in place; or retain the student in the third grade.

Fong said she’s not worried about the new law impacting retention rates too much at Lakota. The school district already has minimal retention rates of 1.3 percent in kindergarten; 0.7 percent in first; 0.5 percent in second; and 0.2 percent in third.

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