Does Ohio’s third grade reading test miss its goal?

GWEN IFILL: A growing number of states are promising to stop promoting students who haven't learned to read by the end of third grade. It's a controversial idea we first reported on two years ago.

Tonight, special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters Television, which produces reports on education for the NewsHour, returned to Ohio to see how that's working.

JOHN TULENKO: Two years ago, the city of Cincinnati and others across Ohio faced a major problem. On a national reading test, 60 percent of fourth-graders were failing, a gap that many we spoke with then feared would just grow wider.

PEGGY LEHNER (R), Ohio State Senator: We don't teach reading in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh grade. So if they haven't learned that, they're not going to learn it. And that's just unacceptable.

JOHN TULENKO: So, two years ago, Republican State Senator Peggy Lehner put a wall around fourth grade, passing legislation that promised to hold back any third grader who failed the state's reading test. Ohio called it the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

LINDA HISSETT, Teacher, Carson Elementary School: It's now or never. We're finished with passing kids along that are unable and unprepared to actually reach success at the higher grade levels.

JOHN TULENKO: At the outset, third grade teacher Linda Hissett of Carson Elementary in Cincinnati welcomed the guarantee, and saw it as a solution.

LINDA HISSETT: I had some students who are at a kindergarten-level reading, first grade-level reading, second grade. You know, I guess I just — I look at it with dismay.

JOHN TULENKO: But Carson's principal, Ruthenia Jackson, was wary of the guarantee. Some 40 percent of her students were in danger of being held back.

RUTHENIA JACKSON, Principal, Carson Elementary School: The research shows that if you retain children over — it doesn't help them down the line, because they're just getting older, and then eventually they will get in high school, and they will just drop out. Who wants to be 17 in ninth grade? Nobody.

JOHN TULENKO: No doubt, the reading guarantee had raised the stakes considerably for Ohio's 125,000 third graders and their teachers. But how would it all turn out? Would the threat to hold students back spur schools to innovate? Just how many students would make it over the bar?

What emerged in the end is a story with both good news and bad news, and we will tell it in that order.

PEGGY LEHNER: The result was remarkable; 96 percent of our third graders passed the test this year.

JOHN TULENKO: We returned recently to speak with Senator Lehner, who told us Ohio's results have a simple explanation.

PEGGY LEHNER: That kind of improvement is incredible. But that only came about because of a lot of hard work, a lot of attention to the importance of reading.

JOHN TULENKO: Carson Elementary seemed to be a case in point. Ruthenia Jackson is still principal.

So, two years ago, you were apprehensive.

RUTHENIA JACKSON: Yes.

JOHN TULENKO: How do you feel about the reading guarantee today?

RUTHENIA JACKSON: Pretty good. It's — and that's because we're making some gains.

JOHN TULENKO: Reading scores here had risen 10 points, following changes made across the school. The entire staff had been reassigned to teach individual subjects. That way, the strongest reading teachers could concentrate on that.

WOMAN: Let's check that vowel before you write.

JOHN TULENKO: Reading specialists were also brought in, with some $13 million Ohio set aside for schools.

RUTHENIA JACKSON: Now we have two. One reading specialist works with those kids who we consider non-readers, and teaching them phonics.

JOHN TULENKO: The second specialist focuses on kids just on the cusp of passing. For everyone else, local high school students were brought in as volunteer tutors. There were reading workshops for parents. Hundreds of books were sent to homes. And in the end, 94 percent of Carson's third graders passed Ohio's reading test and were promoted.

WOMAN: All right, keep on reading.

JOHN TULENKO: Good news for early supporters of the reading guarantee, like Linda Hissett.

LINDA HISSETT: What we have started here is hugely different than how it was prior to three years ago. And the focus that they have on the reading and the intensity, it's a totally different tone.

JOHN TULENKO: But how different was it? Hissett's third grade class still had struggling readers, more than a few. And we found the reading guarantee, which had promised to bring everyone up to grade level, had another side.

LINDA HISSETT: To answer the question if the kids are more prepared, it's very hard, because a lot of the kids that we actually educate, a lot of them will leave.

JOHN TULENKO: Forty percent, in fact, while another 40 percent come in, all midyear. This revolving door, not unusual in urban schools, poses problems for the reading guarantee.

RUTHENIA JACKSON: We get non-readers. We will get a third grader who — who's never heard of a sound, cannot read.

JOHN TULENKO: So, is it that the reading guarantee, it only works in a bubble?

RUTHENIA JACKSON: Right. Exactly true.

JOHN TULENKO: Was it any better in Carson's fourth grade? Remember, under the guarantee, to get here, students first had to pass a test, prove they were ready.

Fourth grade teacher Maria Cleveland.

How many of your kids are actually reading at a fourth grade level?

MARIA CLEVELAND, Teacher, Carson Elementary School: Probably 50 percent. But the reality is that kids are all over the place. They just aren't ready for some of the things — I mean, you know, kids don't know how to sound out words; they're working on some phonics skills that they never received. It's — it's an eye-opener.

JOHN TULENKO: And yet all of them passed Ohio's reading test, and that could be the bigger problem.

MARIA CLEVELAND: They get to take it multiple times, the same test. They get to take it in the fall. If they don't pass it, they take it again in the spring. If they don't pass it, they take it again in the summer. And now they have thrown in a new test.

JOHN TULENKO: And how high was the bar? It turns out the score for promotion, advancing to fourth grade, was set below the mark that defines a proficient reader.

PEGGY LEHNER: There are different scores, and here's why. This is a very, very hard policy. Parents don't want their kids retained; schools don't want to retain them. It's expensive to retain them, $10,000 a year.

If we had set those at the exact same level, at that proficient level, which is, of course, where we want kids to be, this policy would have been dead within a year.

LINDA HISSETT: I don't think that that little window of promotable vs. proficient is really anything to discuss, because it's — it's too close. It's like three questions.

JOHN TULENKO: To Hissett, the lower pass score is a good thing because it gives students a cushion, which makes sense, she says, when the test is high-stakes.

LINDA HISSETT: It's an isolated day. Who knows what happened the night before? Who knows if they had sleep? Who knows if they even ate dinner? So, yes, if they have got the basic skills and they can at least get it close, it's that little shadow of a doubt, that's fine with me.

JOHN TULENKO: But a big shadow of doubt still hangs over Ohio's 96 percent pass rate. A close look at test documents reveals more on just how low the bar was set. Ohio will promote third graders even if they lag behind 85 percent of their peers nationwide.

Aren't you just setting those kids up for failure?

PEGGY LEHNER: No, I think they're getting help because we have focused this attention on reading. And the teachers are aware.

MARIA CLEVELAND: That, to me — now it's just — this is just my opinion — that, to me, would be a state issue, wanting to make it look like, you know, the kids are doing better.

PEGGY LEHNER: Well, you know, if they want to take that attitude, fine. But what we're trying to do here is so terribly important. It's important that we do it right, and not try to do it all at once. That only invites failure.

JOHN TULENKO: Ohio is on track to slowly raise the score for promotion until it matches the score for proficient. At the higher score, Ohio third graders will still lag behind roughly 75 percent of their peers nationwide.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, I'm John Tulenko reporting for the NewsHour.