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Lawmakers Struggle with Reading Guarantee while Teachers Struggle in Classrooms

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Monday, May 14, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Last week the Ohio Senate weakened Governor Kasich's third grade reading bill, much to his chagrin. Thousands of Ohio students could fail third grade if the bill becomes law.

Last week the Republican controlled State Senate weakened the third grade reading requirement proposed by Ohio’s Republican Governor. This week the House is expected to take up the bill.

The stop and go action should come as no surprise considering that thousands of Ohio students could fail third grade if the bill becomes law.

[audio href="" title="Ohio Lawmakers Grapple With Third Grade Reading Guarantee"]Ohio already has a fourth grade reading guarantee on the books, but it was ruled an unfunded mandate years ago and sits largely forgotten.[/audio]

Third grader Damero Holloway-Penn says he reads at home all the time. His teacher certainly hopes so.

Theodore Roosevelt Public Community School in Cincinnati has one of the lowest reading records in the state. Last year 15 percent of third graders at the school tested proficient.

Third graderes like Damero Holloway-Penn work hard to be on track. Holloway-Penn likes to read from the popular kids book Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  He says he reads a lot, every day after school.

Ideally, reading is nurtured in school and at home, but that’s not always the case.

Holloway-Penn says when he reads at home, it's by himself.

The assistant teacher in this class, Damarr Hopkins, says Theodore Roosevelt is an urban school, "so you have some kids who come from a background of parents who don’t give a rats butt and you have some parents who care about their kids and care about their future.”

The mixture of home environments and student abilities is a strain for Hopkins and for teacher Jordan Paquet. Both are new to the classroom.

Paquet says teaching her third graders to read can be challenging, "especially when we’re doing other work and you expect them to be independent and be able to read directions and anything like that and they can’t. But, you know, we make do.”

There’s a mantra in education that says until third grade, students are learning to read, but beyond that, they’re reading to learn. In other words, if they can’t read by third grade they’ll fall behind in everything else. That’s why Governor John Kasich says he’s pushing his tough love guarantee.

"If they can’t read at the third grade level, we’re not going to move them to the fourth grade," Kasich told the audience while announcing the details of his mid-biennium budget this Spring.

"That is doing the children a disservice, doing the parents a disservice, and we think we can do this in a very positive way.”

Third grade teachers like Jordan Paquet often struggle to teach students who don't get any support at home.

This is not the first time Ohio tried a reading guarantee. Fifteen years ago there was a fourth grade guarantee. John Viall, a retired school teacher remembers it well, and he remembers that "it didn’t take too much thinking to realize parents are going to have a fit.”

Not just parents, Viall says teachers also opposed the idea.

The State Supreme Court ultimately threw it out, ruling it an unfunded mandate.

Now the State Senate is reading history and the political tea leaves a little differently from the governor. Recently, it amended the third grade reading bill in some significant ways.

First of all, it lowered the reading level students have to hit before making it on to fourth grade.  Instead of requiring students to read at third grade level - ”proficient” is the term education official use - they could advance at one level below that with so-called ”basic” reading skills. Plus, principals would have more leeway to pass on students testing below that “basic” level.

But Republican lawmakers like Senator Gayle Manning says they don't see the changes as a lowering of the standards proposed by the Governor.

“This isn’t about retention, this is about intervention," Manning says, herself a former third grade teacher. "This is about getting kids reading by third grade, and if we can do it without retaining them I’d much rather see that, and I think most people would.”

[related_content align="right"]Under Kasich’s version of the plan, the Ohio Department of Education estimates about 17-thousand of last year's third graders could have been held back. Under the new Senate standard, 5,700 students would have risked repeating third grade if the guarantee were in place.

Another way the Senate changed the bill to make it more palatable to critics is by allocating $ 13-million to schools to help pay for tutors and other costs associated with implementing such a  reading guarantee. It's not a lot of money, but Governor Kasich’s plan didn’t call for any extra dollars.

The issue goes to the House next, and it’s unclear what the final outcome will be.

Meanwhile, third grade teachers like Jordan Paquet continue to struggle in the classroom.

Paquet says some of her students are so far behind that she thinks it would do them some good to be held back.

"I just can't imagine them in fourth grade," she says.

Paquet says if any reading guarantee passes, there's a good chance several of her students will have to take her class again.

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