Ohio's General Assembly apparently knew what it was doing when it decided earlier this year to abandon the "fourth grade guarantee."
The guarantee was supposed to work like this: If a student couldn't pass the fourth-grade reading proficiency test, he or she would not be promoted to fifth grade unless the pupil's teacher and principal agreed to make an exception. It is important to remember that this guarantee, which was to go into effect next year, was not sprung on pupils, parents, teachers, principals or school boards. It was in place before any student who would be subject to it entered kindergarten.
The General Assembly apparently read the handwriting on the wall. Even though every school district in the state knew that it had to teach its pupils to read by the fourth grade, hundreds of districts failed miserably. In 1996, only 46 percent of the state's fourth graders passed the test. By 1999, that number had risen to 60 percent, but last year the number dropped to 58 percent and this year it dropped another 2 percent to 56.
Facing the prospect of as many as four out of every 10 fourth graders having to repeat a grade, the General Assembly folded.
Cost factor: A cynic might suggest that money was an issue. Many Republicans in the General Assembly have long railed against unfunded mandates. That would make it philosophically difficult for the legislators to require school districts to hold thousands of students back unless they were willing to pay for all that repetition. And it was fiscally impossible, given the difficulty the legislature has had in meeting the Ohio Supreme Court's mandate that it fund an "efficient" system of education in the state.
Whatever the reason for abandoning the guarantee, it is now gone. Legislators say the new system of tests will provide accountability, but we can't imagine that the degree of accountability will exceed that which was inherent in the guarantee.
Instead of backing away from the guarantee, legislators should have been asking why some districts succeed while others fail.
Bright spot: Once again, in Mahoning County, South Range Local School District did itself proud, with 79 percent of its students passing all five sections of the fourth grade proficiency tests -- reading, writing, math, science and citizenship.
Meanwhile, Youngstown City School District had only 9 percent pass all five. In the middle of those results was Jackson-Milton Local Schools with 45 percent.
Such broad disparities suggest that while poverty plays a role in a school district having high failure rates, it is not the only determining factor.
And while the General Assembly is attempting to sort out why some districts do better than others, the legislators should also work on this puzzle. Charter schools, which were supposed to give parents an alternative to under-performing public schools had dismal proficiency test numbers. Statewide, just 6 percent of charter school students pass all five sections of the fourth grade test.