Schools across Stark County are charged with a heavy assignment — make sure third-graders can read at grade level by the end of the year.
The Nation's Report Card shows Ohio's fourth-graders have shown no improvement in reading scores during the past 10 years.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, this year's report card shows that 29 percent of Ohio's fourth-graders scored below basic on reading, a rate that has not improved since 2005.
The reading scores of eighth-graders has remained flat since 2003, but the national score is improving.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard A. Ross said the test results demonstrate why the state's new Third Grade Reading Guarantee program is so important.
The Third Grade Reading Guarantee is designed to identify students behind in reading from kindergarten through third grade, the Ohio Department of Education's website says.
Third-graders are administered a reading test in the fall and spring. Students are required to pass one of the tests before they can be promoted to the fourth grade. If they do not pass the test, students will remain in the third grade.
"In Ohio, we have to do a better job of teaching our children — all of our children — to read. Their success as they continue through school and after they graduate from high school is dependent upon their ability to read," Ross said in a news release from the Ohio Department of Education.
Perry Local Schools Superintendent Marty Bowe agrees with the state's motives to ensure students can read but dislikes how they are going about it.
The program ties local educators hands, he said.
"We need the flexibility to make the judgment call as professional educators," Bowe said. "Holding a child back may or may not be the best thing to do.
"We've told our legislators over and over we have no problem with accountability," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of teachers get into education for the right reasons — they love kids and want to help them."
Northwest Superintendent Mike Shreffler agrees.
"I think they need to let the experts to their jobs," he said. "They need to stop making it political and stop making it one more way of crushing public education."
Shreffler said today, teachers are highly educated and continue to further their education throughout their teaching careers.
"Something that sounds good to most people but when you delve into it, the devil is in the detail," he said.
Bowe said his staff is willing to do whatever it takes to make students successful, but the state mandates and testing are not good for the kids.
"It's an attack on public education," he said. "They are trying to automate and make the teaching profession black and white. It's all or nothing."
Northwest Director of Instruction Debora Clark spent 15 years teaching third grade. She believes grade advancement based solely on state testing puts too much pressure on kids, who each develop at different rates.
Clark said when she was teaching third-graders, she focused on the growth the students made in a year instead of a "magic number."
"We want to be focused on what is best for the kids," she said. "Sometimes it is not as cut and dry as a number on a paper."
Shreffler believes rather than focusing on testing, the state should consider funding early childhood education.
"We live in a state that doesn't fund all-day kindergarten or fund preschool," he said. "Those things make a difference."
Educators agree the pass or fail testing is a lot of stress to put on a third-grader.
"I don't think putting that kind of pressure on a child is going to help anyone," Bowe said. "If you think about what is important in the life of a 9- or 10-year-old, getting held back and separated from friends could be the end of the world for them."
Perry officials, Bowe said, tell students to do the very best they can.
Being blunt about the consequences of failing the test can cause anxiety in the student, he said.
The testing also creates additional fears for students with Individualized Education Programs. Students with cognitive impairment are exempt from the mandate but the average special education student must meet the same standards as a typical student, Clark said.
The only other students exempt from the mandate are students who have been held back before, and English as a second language students who have been in the country less than three years, she said.
Clark said building principals try to put their students at ease as they move into testing. Students are encouraged to get a good night's sleep and to show off their skills, she said.
"They plan activities to talk about testing," she said. "They talk about it in a positive manner. It's uplifting instead of making the students feel panicked."
The middle school had a team building event similar to "Survivor," which allowed students to compete with practice questions from the test. The students then had a celebration to get excited about the testing and face it as a team, Clark said.
Students aren't the only ones feeling anxiety over the testing. Shreffler said parents also are afraid of the outcome.
"Some of the parents are telling their kids you are going to flunk third grade (if you don't pass)," he said. "They (parents) have a huge anxiety as well," said Shreffler.
Districts are doing a number of things to ensure their students are successful including keeping parents informed.
At Northwest, Clark said, parents are learning about testing and the Third Grade Reading Guarantee as early as kindergarten registration.
"We want them to understand the importance of making sure they are keeping track of their student's reading," she said, "and encouraging them to take their kids to the library and to read to them."
The district also provides parents with activities they can do to encourage reading. Clark said parents are reminded of the importance of reading at conferences and through literature and meetings.
"We don't want to scare them but we want to be open about it," she said.
After-school intervention is available for students in kindergarten through fifth grade who are not on track with reading, Clark said.
The district also offers summer intervention programs.
"We reach out to parents early and encourage them to let their students participate before they get to a critical point at the end of third grade and we have to make a tough decision," she said.
Bowe said Perry officials have reached out to parents of students who are at risk to stress the importance of the test.
"We want to surround the child with all the help they can get," he said.
Reach Amy at 330-775-1135 on Twitter: @aknappINDE