Study: Students’ track often set by age 5

Experts say you can predict in kindergarten whether students will pass new state requirements for reading by the 3rd grade.

Most children who were behind in literacy on Ohio’s kindergarten test were unable to catch up in the next three-plus years, eventually failing the state’s third-grade reading exam, according to a multi-year Ohio State study released this week.

The findings match up with similar local data published earlier by the Learn to Earn group, and they put a spotlight on the importance of two ongoing efforts — getting kids more ready for kindergarten by age 5 and intervening very early with students who are behind academically.

Those efforts are crucial now, as Ohio’s new Third-Grade Reading Guarantee requires most current third-graders to meet a certain reading proficiency level, or be forced to repeat the grade this fall.

“It is astonishing that we can predict so well in kindergarten how well kids will be able to read in third grade,” said study co-author Laura Justice, a professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State University. “The more important policy implication is what we do about this knowledge — what can we do to help those children who we know will have trouble reading in third grade if we don’t intervene?”

Ohio State’s study tracked 11,515 Columbus City Schools students who entered kindergarten between 2005 and 2009, and took the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy (KRA-L). More than three years later, 67 percent of students who had scored in the bottom tier of KRA-L failed the third-grade reading test. Only 38 percent of those in the middle tier of KRA-L failed third-grade reading, and 18 percent of students in the highest tier failed third-grade reading.

Justice said the data suggest that given three-plus years to work on the problem, Columbus schools did not have significant success turning underperforming kindergartners into successful third-graders.

Tom Lasley, executive director of Learn to Earn Dayton, said most schools with high-poverty populations will struggle to accomplish that. He gave the example of a kindergarten teacher with multiple students who began school six to eight months behind developmentally. Even if the teacher manages to achieve a full year’s worth of growth with those struggling students, it just means they start the next year still six to eight months behind their peers.

Schools’ efforts

Springfield City Schools Superintendent David Estrop said his district adopted the third-grade reading guarantee last year — a year early — and had strong results. Of the 564 students subject to the requirement (it doesn’t apply to special education and some other students), 88 did not pass the spring third-grade reading test. But Springfield offered an expanded six-week summer session to those students, and given another opportunity, only 18 eventually had to repeat third grade.

“Given our economically disadvantaged rate here in Springfield, we were extraordinarily pleased with those results,” Estrop said. “And we did many things to get those results.”

Estrop said Springfield did two separate reading assessments for students from kindergarten through third grade, then set up “intense remediation” for those who performed poorly, including leveled reading groups so all students – advanced, average and struggling – got proper attention.

Springfield also added after-school programs, increased communication with parents of struggling students and used its 700 volunteer tutors to address the issue.

“We funnelled a lot of our staff, plus tutors and mentors from the community toward kindergarten through third grade, sometimes at the expense of grades 4 to 6,” Estrop said. “Many, many of our children start behind. But we cannot leave them behind. We’ve got to focus our resources early. They have the capacity to catch up. They’ve shown that.”

West Carrollton schools are also helping struggling students prepare for the Ohio Achievement Assessments, which they’ll take the week of April 28. Teachers in every grade know what markers the students need to hit to keep progressing.

First-grade teacher Pam Scholp was leading a group of 19 Schnell Elementary students Thursday — having them read aloud passages of an animal book that kept their attention, and showing them how to process a table of contents, photo captions and a glossary.

“I really try to pull kids over one-on-one to my coaching table if I can if there’s a particular skill they’re not understanding,” Scholp said. “We do it while the other kids are working on other things. For different levels, there will be different challenges.”

Intervention specialist Carolyn North said West Carrollton this year added an extra 45 minutes of reading per day for struggling students, even if it meant they sometimes missed “special” classes such as art or physical education. North pulled four students out of Scholp’s class Thursday to give them extra small-group reading attention.

“There’s no silver bullet. If there was one thing that worked for every child at every grade level in a certain content area, we’d all be doing it,” said West Carrollton Superintendent Rusty Clifford. “But the key is about reading — it’s integral to every discipline – math, science, social studies, music. … and we need to get those kids inspired, so they want to get better.”

Which methods to use

There’s widespread agreement that schools should focus on struggling students in kindergarten through third grade. There’s less agreement on the best ways to move those students forward.

The Ohio State study suggested some answers can be found in the KRA-L test. Justice said certain segments of that test – letter identification, initial sounds and rhyming production — were clearly the best predictors of who would succeed on the third-grade reading test. Therefore, the study said teachers should focus on those topics right away.

Ritika Kurup, assistant director of ReadySetSoar, which aims to improve kindergarten readiness in Montgomery County, said the very specific data in the OSU study helps get educators closer to a set of data-supported best practices for helping young struggling readers.

Lasley said he thinks the focus and pressure created by the Third Grade Reading Guarantee itself will help the education community identify three to five best practices that everyone can use.

But not everyone agrees. Justice said while the OSU recommendations are a good place to start, she thinks a wide variety of models can be successful for helping young readers. John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education, agreed, saying the third-grade guarantee sets goals for schools to achieve, but ODE gives schools the local control to decide how they reach those goals.

Much of the public focus on the reading guarantee has been on students repeating a grade. Some educators have criticized the law, pointing to research that holding students back does not produce positive results. Estrop said the hard part is that most students being considered for retention aren’t ready for the next grade, but they don’t need to repeat every piece of their current grade, either. That challenges schools to deal with an in-between situation.

Expected results

For about 64 percent of Ohio third-graders, there’s no stress associated with the upcoming reading test, because they earned a passing grade when they took it in the fall. And Lasley said he thinks retention rates will end up fairly low because schools have worked so hard to attack the issue, as Springfield did last year. Students who fail the spring test will also have a chance to take it again in the summer, or to pass one of three approved alternate tests.

But Lasley said for the long run, schools, parents and communities have to increase their focus on early-childhood education.

“Ohio State is right — it does matter where that kid is (when he starts kindergarten), and in some ways that trumps what the school can do,” Lasley said. “The only way the school can counteract that is to get more than a year’s growth for each of the first three grades. … That’s a very difficult expectation to place on teachers.”

But educators understand that demand, with Clifford saying the basic job of any school is to accept kids no matter their starting point and take them as far as they can, as fast as they can. And the growing belief is that the job starts early.

“I think sometimes as a culture we say, ehh, it’s kindergarten, that’s not a big deal. First grade? Anybody can do that,” Clifford said. “No. No. No. Those are absolutely critical grades. Sometimes we don’t pay attention until they start struggling, but you know what? If we’d have been paying attention back there at the beginning, they never would have struggled at all.”

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