The score given on the high-stakes Third Grade Reading Guarantee test is just a snapshot of the child behind the number, according to Heidi Mullins, a third-grade teacher at Morrison-Gordon Elementary School in Athens.

“Here’s your number,” she said, as she placed in front of her a card with the number 383 written on it — 7 points below what is needed to pass the test this year.

“She is 8 years old and comes from a working-class home abundant with print and experiences with reading,” Mullins said, as she held back tears. “She has an older sibling, two dogs and a hamster. She struggles with reading. She has friends and wants to have a playdate every weekend. She struggles with reading. She’s worked with tutors and works diligently on her homework. She worries about being held back and cries to her mother. She is not a number. She is my daughter, and I can’t let the system fail her.”

Mullins, along with several other experts on education from various perspectives, spoke Thursday night during a forum focusing on three major reforms in education — the reading guarantee and new teacher and principal evaluation systems.

The forum, sponsored by the Southeast Ohio Teacher Development Collaborative, the Coalition of Rural and Appalachian Schools (CORAS) and Communications and Connections, is the first of three to be held in the region.

For background on the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, check www.athensohiotoday.com for previous stories. This piece will summarize the statements made on the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. A future edition will focus on the experts’ thoughts on the teacher and principal evaluations.

Mullins, who said she supports early intervention, takes issue with a so-called guarantee, stating no policy can guarantee a child will read at grade level by the end of the third grade. She also takes issue with the fact that, under the law, she is not qualified to offer special instruction to students who struggle with reading.

According to the new law, teachers are given four options for becoming qualified. However, many of those rules have changed or are unattainable under the time constraints. For many, the only option is to go back to school to get a reading endorsement.

“I’ve taught for 18 years, 16 at the third-grade level,” she added. “I have a masters and my student average reading OAA (Ohio Achievement Assessments) score for the past four years is 426. But I am not credentialed to be a reading teacher. I will spend $6,500 out of my pocket to get a reading endorsement. This will happen because I love teaching third grade, and I’m good at it.”

Imposing that kind of cost on the “underpaid educators in Southeast Ohio is completely ludicrous,” said Rick Edwards, superintendent of the Athens-Meigs Educational Resource Center. He added there are other avenues, like the Reading First or Ohio Reads programs, that can help struggling readers and not be as cost-prohibitive.

“We need to get in front of these things instead of behind them,” Edwards added. “Until we do, we’re going to continue to have someone telling us what’s best for students.”

Supporters of the guarantee frequently point to the state of Florida as an example of the ways it can work. That state, explained Renee Middleton, dean of Ohio University’s College of Education, invested millions in implementation. In contrast, Ohio has invested zero dollars.

“This would seem like a comedy routine if it weren’t so tragic,” said Tom Parsons, director of curriculum and development with Athens City Schools.

Public schools across the state are simultaneously attempting to implement new standards and new assessments (the Common Core), while still working with the old standards and assessments, he explained. They’re also implementing the Third Grade Reading Guarantee, new teacher and principal evaluation systems, while maintaining the basic needs of their schools. In addition, he said, schools are also dealing with left-over No Child Left Behind policies not covered in the waiver.

“Ask yourself as a citizen,” he said, “what’s the message really being sent by the legislators about public education?”

The reading guarantee law only applies to public schools, added Lori Snyder-Lowe, superintendent of Morgan Local Schools and president of CORAS. Online and religious schools are exempt, something she doesn’t think is fair, especially as more public dollars are sent to those schools through voucher programs.

Audience member Karen Boch, superintendent of Wellston City Schools, said the panel did an excellent job representing the issues faced today in education.

“I’m usually the type of person who takes the bull by the horns to get things done and so is my staff,” she said. “But we’re at a point where I can’t ask them to do one more thing. We came into education to help kids. I’m not sure we’re doing that.”

The next forum will be held on April 23 at 6 p.m. at Easter Local High School in Beaver. The last forum will be at Cambridge Middle School on May 1.

asmedley@athensmessenger.com; Twitter @ariansmessenger

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