COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Starting this fall, Ohio’s state assessments may have slightly lower stakes for thousands of third-graders struggling to read.

Since 2013, the Third Grade Reading Guarantee has tied a student’s promotion to fourth grade to their reading score on a standardized state test. For the upcoming school year, that tie will continue – unless parents opt their students out of the retention.

With the passage of the state’s two-year budget came changes to Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee, changes that represent a compromise between lawmakers’ dueling theories of how to boost student achievement. House Bill 117, which was briefly folded into the budget, would eliminate the mandatory grade retention altogether; while that bill remains pending, Ohio’s elementary students will move forward with a slightly different program.

Parents or guardians, with the consultation of their child’s principal and reading teacher, can request to exempt their child from the reading score requirement to move to fourth grade. The state budget also requires every student who would be held back from fourth grade this year to be promoted alongside their peers, unless parents request otherwise. Such students, including future students who are promoted with below-passing scores, will undergo mandatory 90-minute literacy instruction each day until they can read at grade level.

All students in kindergarten through fourth grade on “reading improvement and monitoring plans,” also called RIMPs, must receive “high-dose tutoring” three times a week or for 50 hours during the school year. The requirement also applies to any private school that enrolls students reading below proficiency level through the EdChoice school voucher program. 

For the 2023-2024 school year, the minimum score on the third-grade English language arts state test to promote to fourth grade is 690. The reading subscore alternative assessment is 48.

Does mandatory retention work?

Nearly 40,000 third-grade students were held back due to their reading scores from 2013 to 2019 – or about 5.5% of eligible students each year, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education. The mandatory retention was discontinued from 2019 to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like the modified version included in the state budget, HB117 would not eliminate literacy intervention requirements for students below proficient in reading. While legislators spent the final days of June whittling down disagreements in the state budget, the House of Representatives passed HB117 nearly unanimously – for the second time in two years. The Senate has yet to take up the legislation.

The bill’s sponsors, Reps. Gayle Manning (R-North Ridgeville) and Phillip Robinson (D-Solon), pointed to a 2018 study by Ohio State University researchers that demonstrated there was “no clear pattern” of improvement due to mandatory retention. Researchers’ analysis of retention rates, test scores and reading assessments found no major boost to students’ fourth-grade reading scores due to being retained.

“If the fundamental goal of the legislation is to provide help and support to make sure students are on track for reading success by the end of third grade, it is unclear whether the reading guarantee has made a lasting and significant difference,” the researchers wrote. 

Elimination of mandatory retention is supported by a swath of school organizations, including the Ohio Education Association, Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Ohio School Psychologists Association. Organizational leaders testified to the lack of proven benefit – and the demonstration of proven harms – arising from mandatory retention.

Rachel Chilton, executive director of the Ohio School Psychologists Association, highlighted multiple studies in her May testimony that showed students who are held back before high school are at increased risk of dropping out, regardless of overall academic achievement. One study in Texas, which has similar score-based retention laws, found that dropout rates were even higher among Black students who were retained.

“Students who are performing below grade level should not be retained, but instead receive support through the required reading improvement and monitoring plan – an intensive, evidence-based intervention plan with frequent progress monitoring,” Chilton testified.

The bill’s lone outspoken opponent, a coalition of business leaders called Ohio Excels, pointed to a study it commissioned from the Ohio Education Research Center showing that 90% of students who repeated third grade improved their reading scores, while 21% achieved proficiency. Students with the lowest scores improved the most upon retention, the study found.

“Removing the retention component without ensuring that resources, supports, interventions, transparency, and accountability are in place to support Ohio’s struggling readers will only lead to worse academic outcomes, something our children, families and state do not deserve and cannot afford,” testified Lisa Gray, president of Ohio Excels.

The broader goal of literacy improvement

The incremental pull away from mandatory retention coincides with a push from Gov. Mike DeWine to promote the “science of reading” across the state. Beginning with millions allocated for literacy intervention programs in the state budget and culminating in the launch of the ReadOhio initiative, DeWine has set his sights on raising the state’s consistently low reading proficiency rates.

In the 2021-2022 school year, more than 40% of Ohio’s third grade – or about 68,000 students – were not proficient in reading, as determined by standardized state testing.

Improving literacy, DeWine has said, starts with promoting the “science of reading,” or research-based instructional methods. In practice, the science of reading focuses on five main areas: Phonemic awareness (the ability to identify individual sounds in spoken language); phonics; vocabulary-building; fluency; and comprehension.

More than $100 million of the budget is siloed into a literacy improvement fund, $64 million of which will be used to subsidize the cost of literacy curriculum and instructional materials and $43 million annually to fund reading-related professional development. Also included is $18 million over the next two years to place literacy coaches in schools with the lowest reading scores.

“We need to seriously look at how we are teaching reading in the state because reading is fundamental to future success,” DeWine said when announcing ReadOhio last week. “Our ReadOhio initiative will encompass all of our efforts to improve literacy skills of Ohioans of every age, from early childhood throughout adulthood, because it’s never too early or too late to learn to read or enhance your skills.”

The budget also requires the state education department to compile a list of evidence-based reading intervention programs, with the requirement that schools begin using the list by the 2024-2025 school year.

Part of his literacy improvement efforts includes traveling to elementary schools across the state, watching teachers guide students through pronunciation and sound recognition with associative movements, over-articulation, and repetition. In a video promoting ReadOhio, choruses of children’s voices are interrupted by the words of school superintendents, teachers and Melissa Weber-Mayrer, literacy chief of the Department of Education.

“We know that reading proficiency dictates quality of life,” Weber-Mayrer says in the video. “We can make a huge difference in the lives of Ohio students.”