Ohio will institute a policy for the 2013-2014 school year that requires third grade students to be reading at a predetermined level on the Ohio Achievement Assessments in order to be promoted. There are exceptions and options, but the idea is fairly straightforward. There is a large body of evidence that children who are not reading at or very near grade level in third grade, struggle with most other subjects in subsequent years. This finding is logical since most curricula shift from a “learning to read” focus to a “reading to learn” emphasis at this point.
The Ohio Third Grade Reading Guarantee is not a new idea. Other places, notably Florida, have encouraged similar policies, and, so far, the indications are positive. Those students who have been retained and received extra help are having greater success in later grades than similar students have in the past. Of course, as with most large policy initiatives, there are both positives and negatives, and the results are not conclusive. Without trying to analyze every aspect of the policy, we only wanted to offer a few simple suggestions, particularly for Ohio schools who are using the Stevenson Program:
• Be prepared to intervene at an early stage. Since five year olds mature at varying rates, it is notoriously difficult to know if a child whose reading skills lag the average would catch up anyway if left alone, or if that child might need additional or alternative instruction. However, if you wait a year to see what happens, you will be losing valuable time if it turns out that student really needs an alternative. Also, there is really nothing to lose by intervening early. For example, if a lagging student is given Stevenson’s Letter’s in Kindergarten, the worst that can happen is that the student will master the sound-symbol correspondence of all his letters, improve his phonemic awareness and learn valuable decoding skills.
• Be prepared to tweak your RTI (Response To Intervention) habits – The basic premise of RTI will not change, but the timing and emphasis might. Besides intervening earlier, you might not want to rush students back into the basal or mainstream reading materials. There has long been a tendency for schools to want as many students as possible to spend as much time as possible following the same reading curricula. Thus, when students make solid gains from interventions in first or second grade, those supports are often removed and students are placed in regular instruction. If the third grade threshold becomes even more important, perhaps the support needs to remain in place longer.
• Maximize cooperation between special education personnel, reading specialists and regular classroom teachers. – A lack of optimum coordination between these different professionals has been a problem throughout the country for a long time. Under RTI the coordination has improved, but many schools and/or school systems can still do better. In order to maximize the number of third grade students reading at a solid third grade level in third grade, a general rule of thumb could be: “Keep doing it if it is working. Change it if it isn’t.”
• Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – Assessment is vital, but there is no way all students can do exactly the same thing at the same time. There are many ways to get to an effective third grade reading level, and no single assessment is going to be adequate for judging progress. Use different tools and methods for evaluating progress, listen to the students’ feelings about how they are learning, listen to the parents and trust your gut.