How Ohio’s “Reading” Cut Score Got Set to Determine Who Will Repeat Third Grade

Thanks to Ohio’s Plunderbund blog, we now know how the decision was made to determine how Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee will work.  This is Governor John Kasich’s plan to require all children reading below grade level at the end of third grade to repeat third grade—to flunk.  This year, the 2013-2014 school year, is the crucial first year of this program.  It is estimated that 10,000 children will repeat third grade in Ohio next fall.

Most of us assume there is something scientific about how the passing score is set for a standardized test, but we see something very different in the audio recordings posted by Plunderbund of the September 11, 2012 regular business meeting of the Ohio State Board of Education at which the Board voted unanimously to set the reading test cut score at 392.  Michael Sawyers, then acting State Superintendent, made a PowerPoint presentation in which he recommends a cut score of 392 (when, he estimates, 10,000 students would be retained in third grade) over a score of 390 (by which he estimates only 8,900 students would be retained).

In the audio clip from the second part of his presentation, you can hear Sawyers explain how children living in Ohio’s urban districts will be far more affected by the Third Grade Guarantee than children in other school districts.  Ohio, he says, has 785 Local Education Agencies (including public and charter school districts) with children in third grade.  According to Sawyers, 72 percent of these Local Education Agencies will have less than 10 students each affected by the Third Grade Guarantee.  One third of the students to be retained attend school in one of 12 urban districts where poverty is concentrated.

In his presentation the acting State Superintendent does not wonder whether poverty itself may be affecting these children’s school achievement; nor does he evaluate other possible ways to help the children who struggle with reading—such as through universal, enriched pre-school—the kind of program documented to help close the achievement gap that is already wide when children enter school at five years of age.

He does add that 19 percent of Ohio’s school districts will have not one student held back by the Third Grade Guarantee, although he neither assigns an income level to these school districts nor acknowledges that they are likely to be Ohio’s wealthiest  districts.  According to yesterday’s Plain Dealer, the percentage of children projected to be held back in third grade across Ohio’s urban districts is:  Youngstown,  59.8 percent; Cleveland, 57.8 percent; East Cleveland, 57.2 percent; Warren, 55 percent; Warrensville Heights, 54.1 percent; Euclid, 52.1 percent; Lorain, 51.3 percent; Columbus, 49.3 percent; and Dayton, 47.7 percent.

Acting Superintendent Sawyers’ assumption is that Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee is designed to help Ohio’s urban children.  After all, Governor Kasich has consistently pointed out that children behind in reading by third grade are more likely to drop out of school than stronger readers.  Sawyers presents the Third Grade Guarantee as a dropout prevention program.

While it is essential for children to learn to read in the early grades, and while it is known that weak readers struggle all through school, Acting Superintendent Sawyers and Governor Kasich (along with Jeb Bush who invented the idea of a third-grade-reading-guarantee when he was Florida’s governor) are ignoring a significant and conclusive body of research indicating instead that holding children back in any grade—flunking them—is highly correlated with their later dropping out of school.

In 2004, writing for the Civil Rights Project, Lisa Abrams and Walt Haney summarized: “half a decade of research indicates that retaining or holding back students in grade bears little to no academic benefit and contributes to future academic failure by significantly increasing the likelihood that retained students will drop out of high school.” (Gary Orfield, ed., Dropouts in America, pp. 181-182)

In 2002, Harvard researcher Timothy Hacsi points out what Ohio’s acting Superintendent apparently failed to notice: “Perhaps the most telling criticism of the movement to end social promotion is that the alternative stigmatizes and increases the disadvantages already faced by children from low-income families and children of color.” (Children as Pawns, p. 169)

David Berliner and Gene Glass report the research of Kaoru Yamamoto on the emotional impact on children of being held back: “Only two events were more distressing to them: the death of a parent and going blind.” (50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, p. 96)  Berliner and Glass continue: “Retention simply does not solve the quite real problems that have been identified by teachers looking for a solution to a child’s immaturity or learning problems.” (p 96)

None of this research was apparently presented to the hapless members of Ohio’s State Board of Education. At the end of the acting Superintendent’s PowerPoint presentation at their regular September 11, 2012 meeting, they OK’d his recommendation with a simple unanimous vote.  That is how the seemingly-scientific passing score on the Ohio third-grade reading test got set.  In Cleveland, according to today’s Plain Dealer, that means approximately  1,000 third graders will enter mandatory summer school in hopes they can pass the third grade reading test by the end of the summer and be promoted next fall to fourth grade.