Whitehall City Schools officials say they are confident that the district is on the right track in laying the foundation for the state's new third-grade reading guarantee.

Whitehall City Schools officials say they are confident that the district is on the right track in laying the foundation for the state's new third-grade reading guarantee.

Although Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy said the district still has more questions than answers about the new state law, Whitehall's elementary school principals have been screening students and providing intense intervention for two years, as part of the district's Ohio Improvement Process.

The third-grade reading guarantee is part of Senate Bill 316, which Gov. John Kasich signed into law in June, and mandates that districts retain third-graders who do not meet prescribed literacy benchmarks.

Those benchmarks were released last week by the State Board of Education, which has decided to use the Ohio Achievement Assessment as the universal test for the new law. Students in third grade must score 392 or better out of the 500 points on the reading portion of the third-grade OAA to be promoted to fourth grade.

Whitehall officials were just digesting the new cut-score information and beginning to study figures from last year. They are unsure just how the new guidelines would affect Whitehall's retention rates.

Districts are being given one year to put a plan into action to address the new law, but they must abide by the retention rules next school year.

"We may actually be a little ahead of the game because we've already started putting these things in place," Dobbert-Meloy said. "What I'm looking for is for us to gauge how many kids this will impact and who those kids are."

According to Susie Carr, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Whitehall already is screening students with a number of tools when they come to third grade in the fall. An autumn administration of the reading portion of the OAA rates literacy. The district also administers a universal screener that measures a student's reading fluency and comprehension, she said. Teachers also give a literacy assessment/diagnostic test to all students, measuring comprehension and writing skills.

"So we are using all of this data to look at where students are," Carr said.

Different testing and screeners also are administered to English as a Second Language learners and those students with disabilities -- some who are exempt from the new law.

"What we're trying to do is come up with profiles for students: What's their learning style? That way, we can begin to target our reading (instruction)," Carr said.

After students are assessed, they receive tailored intervention during a 45-minute Response to Intervention block each day. Anyone falling behind also could take advantage of the district's after-school program or get additional help during summer school.

Carr pointed out that all students are assessed throughout the year in an effort to keep a handle on individual progress.

Both Carr and Dobbert-Meloy said they believe they have really only two more avenues at this point to boost intervention -- by broadening their after-school program to include more students and by expanding their summer school program.

Dobbert-Meloy said Whitehall faces some unusual challenges to the new law, primarily because of its high turnover rate -- as high as 50 percent at some schools during a given year.

Because the district universally screens all students as they walk through the door, even if it is in the middle of the year, teachers have a better handle on the needs of every child, Carr said.

According to guidelines released by the Ohio Department of Education in August, "$13 million has been set aside to create grants to help districts with the additional fiscal cost of implementing the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee."

Whitehall officials say that is only a drop in the bucket.

Carr and Dobbert-Meloy say the new law brings other problems, as well. For example, results from the spring OAA are not released to districts until the end of June -- too late to bring students and parents back in for summer intervention.

The new law also does not take into consideration specific situations a child might be facing on test day.

"There can be all sorts of reasons that affect why a student didn't do well (on the test)," Dobbert-Meloy said. "Student learning is not black and white; that's for sure."

She said automatically retaining a student based on one score often could be unfair or could squash any buy-in by parents if they do not agree that their child should be held back.

"I think there is still a lot to learn about how this (new legislation) is going to work," Dobbert-Meloy said. "I think we have more questions ourselves, right now, than answers."