The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law twenty years ago on January 8, 2022, has come to be known as America’s test-and-punish education law, designed by politicians, not educators, and based on manipulation of big data collected from all the states’ standardized test scores
“Test-and-punish” has become a cliche, whose meaning we rarely consider carefully. Unlike the politicians who designed the law, educators who know something about learning and the psychology of education have always known that the law’s operational philosophy couldn’t work. Fear and punishment always interfere with real learning.
The federal government has reduced the imposition of federal punishments when a school’s test scores fail to rise, but states are still required to rate and rank their public schools and to devise turnaround plans for the so-called “failing” schools. And, despite that some test-and-punish policies were never federally required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many states themselves adopted policies that reflected the test-and-punish ethos. Some of these policies remain in state law as a relic of the NCLB era.
Much of the No Child Left Behind era’s punitive policy was aimed at pressuring school districts and particular schools quickly to raise scores, but one test-and-punish policy which has been particularly hurtful to children themselves is the so-called “Third Grade Guarantee.” In 2014, Ohio adopted the Third Grade Guarantee as it was outlined in a model bill distributed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to ALEC’s A-Plus Literacy Act: “Beginning with the 20XX-20XY school year, if the student’s reading deficiency, as identified in paragraph (a), is not remedied by the end of grade 3, as demonstrated by scoring at Level 2 or higher on the state annual accountability assessment in reading for grade 3, the student must be retained.”
During the years of disruption amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ohio Legislature temporarily stopped holding children back in third grade. Now the Columbus Dispatch‘s Anna Staver reports on a new effort by two state legislatures to do the right thing and end Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee altogether: “State lawmakers pressed pause on the retention requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. No third-grade students from 2019-2020 and 2021-2022 school years were held back.” “State Rep. Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville… and state Rep. Phil Robinson, D-Solon, want to make that permanent with HB 497.”
Staver begins her report by describing what educational research demonstrates is the serious damage the Third Grade Guarantee has caused among Ohio’s children: “More than 39,000 Ohio children have failed the statewide reading test and been mandated, with some exceptions, to repeat third grade since 2014. The idea being kids learn to read between kindergarten and third grade before reading to learn for the rest of their education. But educators, parents, school psychologists and early childhood researchers at Ohio State University’s Crane Center have spent the last decade questioning whether our Third Grade Reading Guarantee works. Whether the stigma of being held back was outweighed by gains in reading comprehension and student success. A pair of state representatives think the answer is no, and they’ve introduced House Bill 497. The legislation would keep the state tests but not the requirement that those who fail must repeat third grade.”
Jeb Bush and his ExcelInEd Foundation have been promoters of the Third Grade Guarantee, but Staver traces Ohio’s enthusiasm for the Third Grade Guarantee to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “In 2010, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a bombshell special report called ‘Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters.’ Students, it said, who don’t catch up by fourth grade are significantly more likely to stay behind, drop out and find themselves tangled in the criminal justice system. ‘The bottom line is that if we don’t get dramatically more children on track as proficient readers, the United States will lose a growing and essential proportion of its human capital to poverty… And the price will be paid not only by the individual children and families but by the entire country.'”
It was the old “A Nation at Risk” story about “failing” public education creating a mediocre America and a lagging economy. In states across the country, anxious legislators capitulated to the anxiety driven narrative and failed to consider what being held back would mean for the children themselves—for their drive to learn to read, for their engagement with school, for their self esteem, and for what we have learned since is their accelerated risk of dropping out of school before high school graduation. Staver quotes Ohio’s former governor: “Gov. John Kasich made it the focus of his education overhaul, saying the time had come to ‘put an end to social promotion.'”
Staver cites a 2019 report, Has Ohio’s Third-Grade Reading Guarantee Led to Reading Improvements?, from Ohio State University’s Crane Center, whose website describes it as “a multidisciplinary research center dedicated to conducting high-quality research that improves children’s learning and development at home, in school and in the community.” The report concludes: “We found no meaningful or significant improvements to Ohio’s fourth-grade reading achievement from the time the third-grade reading guarantee was implemented.” Staver adds that Jamie O’Leary the Crane Center’s associate director, interprets the results: “O’Leary had some theories about why. The first was early learning…. Only 41% of children passed the Ohio Department of Education’s kindergarten readiness exam in 2018. Twenty-three percent needed ‘significant support.'” Finally O’leary worries about children’s stress inside and outside of school.
Poverty has clearly been a factor: “The districts retaining 2% or fewer of their students are overwhelmingly located in wealthy suburban neighborhoods.” Staver interviews Scott DiMauro, a current teacher and the president of the Ohio Education Association: “‘What that means… is that our must vulnerable students are the ones getting held back.’ That’s a problem for him because several studies suggest retaining children also decreases their chances of graduation. Notre Dame sociologist Megan Andrew published a study in 2014 about 6,500 pairs of students with similar backgrounds and IQ scores. The ones held back were 60% less likely to graduate high school. She hypothesized that since students routinely ranked retentions as ‘second only to a parent’s death in seriousness,’ the move was so ‘psychologically scarring’ that many never regained their confidence. DiMauro put it this way, ‘Instead of creating lifelong learners, we’re creating kids who hate to read.'”
To offer a contrasting opinion—support for the Third Grade Guarantee, Staver quotes Lisa Gray, the president of Ohio Excels. Staver describes Gray as “the lone opponent to testify against HB 497.” The Ohio Excels website describes that organization’s history: “Ohio Excels was born in 2018. Leading that effort were former Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joseph Roman, Ohio Business Roundtable President and CEO Patrick Tiberi, Cincinnati Business Committee CEO Gary Lindgren, and Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. Assembling an initially small group of business leaders, they created a non-partisan coalition committed to keeping the business community’s voice at the forefront of policy discussions of education and workforce issues.”
I am hopeful, as the Ohio Legislature considers permanently removing Ohio’s Third Grade Guarantee by passing House Bill 497, that our legislators will study the research from the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy instead of paying attention to Ohio Excels. For a long time policymakers have listened to the test-and-punish, corporate accountability hawks and neglected what they might learn from early childhood research and a basic class in educational psychology. I share Scott DiMauro’s concern—that the Third Grade Guarantee is creating kids who fear failure, who dread being shamed by their peers, who hate to read, and who feel altogether alienated from school.