By DAVID GREEN
Parents of Fayette's kindergarten through third grade students should have received a letter from elementary school principal/superintendent Erik Belcher this week, informing them of the progress their student is making in reading skills.
Parents were notified their student is either "on track" or "not on track" to meet state standards—standards with big consequences. Through the new Third Grade Reading Promise from Ohio Gov. John Kasich and legislators, students must attain a minimum passing score on the new reading achievement test in the spring or they will be retained in third grade. The new law takes effect in the 2013-14 school year, making this year's second grade students the first to face the threat of retention. The policy does not apply to non-public charter schools.
The new effort might sound familiar to some parents and educators due to its similarity to Ohio's Fourth Grade Guarantee put into place more than 10 years ago. There is one major difference: Some loopholes regarding retention were attached to the 1997 legislation; this time there are very few exceptions and parents have no say in the matter.
Belcher expects some parents won't be pleased with the news about retentions and he wants them to know the decision didn't originate at the school.
"This isn't coming from us," he said. "It's from legislators passing laws."
The letters sent to parents list services the school currently provides to improve reading skills, plus additional instructional services that will be made available to a child who is not on track.
These services, and other tenets of the Third Grade Promise have actually been part of Fayette's reading instruction for years, Belcher said.
For example, the new law requires that students' reading skills are tested at the start of the school year, something the school has done for years and, in fact, does three times a year. Progress is monitored throughout the school year.
A plan must be established for students who are not on track and parent involvement is encouraged—as it has been in the past. Teachers want good communication with parents, however, parents will not be able to fight retention if ordered.
Exceptions to retention can be granted for special education students who have an individualized education program (IEP) and also for some students who speak English as a second language.
Belcher said the parents of about half of the students received letters indicating their child could be in danger of retention. He figures that's probably on the high side, but he doesn't want the news to come as a shock at the end of the school year.
He also thinks the number is high for another reason: Some children experience a loss of progress over the summer if they aren't reading at home. However, the state requires an assessment by Sept. 30, followed by a notification to parents. He also expects many children to progress through the year and lose their "not on track" status.
The district is using federal Title II funds to pay a teacher at the substitute rate to work on reading skills with second grade students and others in small groups.
"We're trying to work a year ahead," he said, "as we count down to next year."
Starting in 2013-14, teachers who work with students who are having reading problems will be required to obtain a special endorsement through additional study.
The idea behind the legislation is the belief that mastery of reading by third grade is essential for success in other subjects. Several states now have third grade reading standards in place, but not all of them have the same retention rule.
Like many educators, Belcher isn't a fan of forced retention.
"Research shows that one of the worst things you can do is to hold them back," he said. "It can scar a student. I can handle change and higher standards, but I can't handle hurting children. I think it's morally wrong."
In reviewing retention policies in two other states, the Education Commission of the States published a paper in March of this year stating that retention policies create a sense of urgency in efforts to improve reading skills, but cautioned that retention should not be the first and only step taken.
Early identification and intervention are seen as more likely to improve student performance, the paper concluded, and suggested an expansion of quality pre-kindergarten programs. States with the most success, whether retention was used or not, focus on small class size and intensive, personalized help.