I’ve written a lot of posts over the past three years, but none have ever struck me with the sense of urgency that this one has and I have a special request that is completely out of character for me to ask: please share this post intentionally and widely. The futures of thousands of Ohio’s young children are at stake.  We need the General Assembly to take action immediately to enact emergency legislation to amend Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law to protect our children. Read on to understand why.

The Kasich Administration’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law has the stated intent of identifying children who are reading below grade level and providing a variety of intervention services in order to avoid having these children continue on and end up dropping out of school later on in their lives.  When the legislation was first introduced, Kasich referenced a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AEC) that showed that children who weren’t proficient readers at the end of third grade were at increased risk of dropping out.  Since that time, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has published two follow-up reports that confirm their initial findings — that these children are indeed at increased risk for dropping out.

There is, however, a major flaw in Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law — the requirement to retain these children in third grade for another year.  As we’ve reported earlier, this law will impact thousands of Ohio’s third graders at the end of this year.  The extreme provision of retaining a child goes well beyond the implementation of standard interventions and is not found as a suggested recommendation in the Annie E. Casey Foundation reports.

By implementing this punitive action of retaining students, the Kasich Administration has directly ignored research studies by a wide variety of experts that explicitly show that retaining a child at any grade also dramatically increases that child’s likelihood of dropping out of school later on.  As we’ll show, these studies recommend a variety of interventions to help these children become proficient readers, but they all find that retaining students for the sole purpose of improving reading should be avoided.

First, let’s recap the Annie E. Casey reports.  The 2010 report cited by Kasich is titled Early Warning!: Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters. The report is a good read and concludes with four recommendations to remedy the issue:

  1. Develop a coherent system of early care and education that aligns, integrates, and coordinates what happens from birth through third grade so children are ready to take on the learning tasks associated with fourth grade and beyond.
  2. Encourage and enable parents, families, and caregivers to play their indispensable roles as co-producers of good outcomes for their children.
  3. Prioritize, support, and invest in results-driven initiatives to transform low-performing schools into high-quality teaching and learning environments in which all children, including those from low-income families and high-poverty neighborhoods, are present, engaged, and educated to high standards.
  4. Find, develop, and deploy practical and scalable solutions to two of the most significant contributors to the under-achievement of children from low-income families — chronic absence from school and summer learning loss.

In short, invest in early learning experiences, invest in families and schools, and find solutions to the effects that show up in children of poverty.

AEC published another study in 2012 titled Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation that further explores the problems leading to below-grade level reading skills, explaining that children of poverty are at much greater risk of falling behind.  We wrote a detailed post about the findings of this study back in March, 2012 titled Reading guarantee not enough – Kasich’s study conveys need for a “Third Grade Poverty Guarantee”.

In short, this second AEC study spells out the extremely significant role that poverty plays in a child’s educational experiences and leads us back to the four recommendations from the Early Warning! study.

Most recently, AEC published a report in 2013 simply titled Early Warning Confirmed in which they expound on their earlier evidence.  The authors also explain in the foreward of this report that many states have adopted laws like Ohio’s that require children to demonstrate reading proficiency on a standardized test or be retained in third grade.  The foreward contains important additional commentary about this practice:

The push for retention has brought energy and urgency to the effort to improve third-grade reading proficiency, which is good. But the evidence is not strong enough to support a claim that grade retention is the answer. And the evidence is certainly not strong enough to support mandatory retention for every child who fails a standardized test, as some proposals and statutes have required.

What we have here is the authors of the study that Kasich cited as the reason for implementing a law that includes retaining students clearly stating that they did not have evidence to support such a policy.

Let’s make this perfectly clear: The authors of the research report that John Kasich used to justify retaining third graders produced a newer report that states that there is not evidence to support mandatory retention.

In this latest report, the authors again restate the key contributing factors that lead to children falling behind in reading and that need to be addressed by all stakeholders:

  • School Readiness (i.e., increase early childhood, especially for low-income children)
  • Chronic Absence (chronic absenteeism in early grades can actually erase benefits of entering Kindergarten “ready to learn”)
  • Summer Learning (while middle-income children make slight gains in the summer months, their low-income peers fall behind by as much as two months, widening the achievement gap every successive year; summer programs are shown to counteract this trend)
  • Family Stressors (family stressors can distract children from the task of learning, including hunger, housing insecurity, family mobility, family violence, parental depression, and abuse and neglect)
  • High-Quality Teaching (reported as something that happens not only with teachers at school but with family members at home and with caregivers in community settings)

While simply looking at Kasich’s self-selected AEC studies should be enough to prompt legislators to amend Ohio’s law, we won’t end there.  There is a wealth of literature that goes even further in studying the connection between retention and dropout rates.  It’s important to look at these studies in conjunction with the AEC reports in order to provide the detailed information that shows that Ohio’s mandatory retention requirement will result in the opposite outcome of the law’s stated intention of reducing dropouts.  Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law — specifically the mandatory retention component — will result in an increased probability of these students dropping out before completing high school.

I won’t go into great depth in each of these reports, but will provide you with the highlights and links where you can obtain the full studies.

The first is a three-part study from the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University.  This report summarizes a review of many other studies and, as it isn’t very long, I strongly urge you to read the original documents.  Authors Nailing Xia and Elizabeth Glennie state the results clearly and concisely:

In the past century, educational professionals and policymakers have continued to debate whether grade retention or social promotion should be used as an intervention strategy to bring under-achieving students up to standard. The most recent trend clearly favors the use of retention in an attempt to maintain high academic standards and educational accountability.  However, a careful investigation of this policy’s effects and costs suggests that it is ineffective and expensive. Policymakers and educational professionals should move beyond retention and social promotion by developing and adopting alternative intervention strategies proven as successful and cost-effective.

An overwhelmingly large body of studies have consistently demonstrated negative academic effects of retention. Contrary to popular belief, researchers have almost unanimously found that early retention during kindergarten to grade three is harmful, both academically and emotionally.

Research has consistently found that retained students are at a higher risk of leaving school earlier, even after controlling for academic performance and other factors such as race and ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, family background, etc. Grade retention has been shown to increase the risk of dropping out by 20% to 50%. [emphasis added]

The authors also touch on the direct financial impact of retaining students:

It is estimated that nationally 5% to 9% of students are retained every year, translating into over 2.4 million children annually.10 With an average per pupil expenditure of over $7,500 a year,11 this common practice of retention costs taxpayers over 18 billion dollars every year.

The authors further explain that there is evidence that other interventions will result in better outcomes for the children and that retention should be used sparingly, if at all, while spelling out the types of targeted interventions that have resulted in successful outcomes for struggling young readers:

Studies comparing the retained student to a similar student who was promoted suggest that retained students would have made just as much or even more progress without retention.

Until further proof of its efficacy is found, retention should only be used as a last resort. Alternative remediation strategies should be explored and used to bring under-achieving students up to standard. Such alternatives could include, but are not limited to, early identification of and targeted assistance for low-achieving students, individualized student instruction, parental involvement, curriculum development, school restructuring, summer school, and personalized tutoring programs.

It’s hard not to see how these findings complement the most recent AEC study and the key factors that lead to children reading below grade level.  

Finally, the authors make some damning statements that challenge public opinion about the subject of retention, but are based solely on the results of the large number of research studies on this topic:

Research has consistently found that retained students are at a higher risk of dropping out of school.4 It has been reported that retained students are two to eleven times more likely to drop out.

Popular belief in the efficacy of retention creates a powerful mandate. Policymakers and politicians at all levels have started to demand high educational standards and accountability… As Holmes and Saturday noted, the issue of retention and promotion “provides a popular political platform” and ending social promotion may be “the latest trend in winning political popularity.” As a result, schools are under considerable political pressure to appease popular demands, and research showing the drawbacks of retention can easily get lost in a sea of prevailing appeals to maintain high academic standards.

Sound familiar?

You can access the three parts of this study at these links:

Look, this isn’t simply the opinions of a few academics out of Duke University, their analysis references dozens of research studies on the connection between retention and dropping out that came to the overwhelming conclusion that grade retention is a very strong predictor of students dropping out of high school.

Tomorrow, I’ll post additional studies that detail this research-based fact that retaining our third grade students contradicts the Kasich Administration’s political stance of reducing Ohio’s dropout rate.  Instead, retaining thousands of students going in to next year will do irreparable harm to their future and put them at an even greater risk of dropping out than they are now.  Remember, the Governor’s chosen research body, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, explicitly states that mandatory retention is NOT the solution.

Take action on this now.  We need to contact our legislators and bring them up to speed on this research to avoid exposing thousands of third graders to an even greater risk of dropping out.  We need to urge them, starting with Senator Peggy Lehner, Senate Education Committee Chair, to pass emergency legislation to remove the mandatory retention component of Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee law so that this year’s third graders avoid the punitive penalty and the negative ramifications that research has shown will occur.  Senator Lehner has led other changes to the original law and it’s not unreasonable to believe that she could lead others given new information about the contradictory effect the law will actually have on Ohio’s students.

Share this information with Senator Lehner through her contact website.  You can also follow up with Senator Lehner by calling her at (614) 466-4538.

You can find the other members of the Senate Education Committee here.


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