After third grade, students switch from learning to read to reading to learn.
Education leaders say the high-stakes nature of the Ohio Third Grade Learning Guarantee is not helping to move the needle on literacy.
Under the standard enacted in 2012, with limited exceptions, a student who fails to meet a minimum score on the state's third grade English language arts assessment cannot be promoted to the fourth grade.
Elementary school teacher Karen Carney of Campbell City Schools said she has seen how the threat of retention is causing anxiety among students.
"I overheard two little girls talking about, 'Oh my god, do you know that if we don't pass this test they don't let us go to fourth grade?' It just completely broke my heart," Carney recounted. "No eight-, nine-year-old should have to deal with anything as stressful as something like that. School should be a place where you feel safe, where you feel people are your cheerleaders."
Educators say Ohio's reading score on the national assessments has remained stagnant since 2002, with a decline in years prior to the pandemic.
A bipartisan bill passed by the Ohio House would eliminate retention under the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. And earlier this week, the State Board of Education's legislative committee considered a resolution to advocate its elimination as well.
Paul Thomas, professor of English and secondary education at Furman University, found in his recent research, grade retention distorts test data and distracts from the goal of reading reform: improved student reading proficiency.
Thomas noted it disproportionately impacts and punishes vulnerable populations of students.
"They're struggling with racism, poverty, a number of things beyond their control," Thomas pointed out. "And grade retention piles on negative consequences to those students without adding any value to their reading experience."
Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, argued educational policies proven ineffective should not continue, and he said grade retention based on a test score drives a wedge between parents and educators.
"It's an outside hammer that gets in the way of true collaboration between the people who know those children best, along with the parent and the child," DiMauro contended. "This policy is fundamentally disrespectful of the expertise of educators."
Opponents of ending the retention mandate emphasized it offers struggling readers more time and supports, and helps ensure they are prepared for the more difficult material which comes in later grades.