I am sitting across the table from the parents of Annie, a third-grader at the elementary school where I serve as principal. I avoid using her real name here because I do not wish to single her out and subject her to any more scrutiny than she is already experiencing.
Annie scored a 391 on her reading test last September. That is one point shy of the 392 she must hit this spring on the Ohio Achievement Assessment in order to be promoted to the fourth grade in reading, according to a new law in effect in Ohio.
Annie is worried -- and her parents are worried.
Her third-grade teacher has spelled out everything about her difficulties, including strategies for how to overcome them, in a state-mandated Reading and Improvement Monitoring Plan. Since last October, Annie, her teacher and a literacy specialist have been working through the steps of the plan. Each of them hopes it is enough to push her to the magic 392 come April.
Annie loves school. She's a real pleasure in the classroom, as are all of my students who are striving to meet the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. For example, one student really likes art and gets excited about building things. "She is always conducting experiments," says her dad. Another is accomplished at solving real-life problems, like rearranging his mom's computer workstation for maximum efficiency. Another, acutely aware of how reading challenges him, works hard to concentrate and slow down his brain long enough to comprehend.
Now Annie's parents are taking her to the pediatrician, asking specialists to test her for ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). They've brought in a private tutor to help her with reading comprehension.
And Annie is worried.
Even though she is only 8 years old, she knows the stakes here: how embarrassed she will be if she doesn't move up to fourth grade with her classmates.
As most parents and educators understand, children develop at different rates. They grow over time. For example, in the fall of the 2012-13 school year, only 88.5 percent of Bexley's young readers met the 392 cutoff prescribed by the Third Grade Reading Guarantee; by spring, that number had jumped to 94.5 percent.
It's entirely possible that Annie will grow and develop and pass the April test with flying colors.
But meanwhile, Annie worries.
The Third Grade Reading Guarantee is intended to improve reading proficiency in the early elementary grades. That is an important goal, but not when it comes at the expense of a young person's well-being.
As Bexley Superintendent Mike Johnson has pointed out, children's baby teeth develop and fall out at various rates, and sometimes most second-graders are missing their two front teeth while a couple hang on to theirs. Would we pull a child's baby teeth in order to promote her to second grade?
Why do our legislators want a little girl to suffer because she is not hitting particular marks at particular times? Why punish the student? Our teachers are eager to find the best methods for children's needs -- shouldn't the law be focused there? And what about the children whose parents lack the resources to hire extra help?
My fellow Bexley principals and I are asking these hard questions of our state legislators by meeting with the governor, state superintendent and legislative education committees. We encourage parents, guardians and teachers of children to join us in telling our lawmakers that, while we appreciate their good intentions, the effects of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee are just plain harmful to children.
Jeannine Hetzler is principal of Cassingham Elementary School in Bexley.