As many as half of third-graders in some of Ohio's largest urban school districts aren't reading on grade level. "It's alarming," said Jim Herrholtz, an associate superintendent at the Ohio Department of Education.

As many as half of third-graders in some of Ohio’s largest urban school districts aren’t reading on grade level.

“It’s alarming,” said Jim Herrholtz, an associate superintendent at the Ohio Department of Education. “I don’t want to be harsh, but let’s be honest: If those students don’t acquire fundamental skills of reading, how can we expect them to graduate, to hold jobs, to be good-quality citizens in our community?”

The revelation — the public acknowledgement, at least — that so many urban-school students are behind in reading was made this fall after Ohio for the first time required schools to test kindergarten through third-grade kids in reading. The districts must report the results to the state and to parents, and create intervention plans for those who need to catch up. Beginning next school year, the so-called “third-grade reading guarantee” law also will require some students who miss a basic reading target to repeat third grade.

That’s the part of the law that has gained the most attention. But in the state’s “big eight” urban districts, the most pressing matter is how to get thousands of children immediate help in reading and, frankly, whether it can be done.

In Columbus, the fall reading exams showed that more than 8,000 kindergartners, first-, second- and third-graders need intense help — almost half of the total K-3 enrollment. Some younger kids can’t identify the front or back of a book. They don’t know what sounds letters make. Among third-graders alone, about 1,800 aren’t reading on grade level. That’s 48 percent of the third grade that, in a doomsday (and unlikely) scenario would mean nearly 2,000 kids repeating third grade. Most years, Columbus holds back fewer than 25 third-graders.

“We’re doing everything we can,” said Columbus schools spokesman Jeff Warner.

“I don’t think we can throw in the towel and say, ‘There’s no way,’?” added Suzy Rhett, who oversees curriculum, leadership and development for the district.

In Dayton, half of third-graders aren’t on track in reading. In Cleveland, 34 percent of third-graders are reading below grade level. And in Toledo, about 42 percent of third-graders aren’t hitting the minimum requirement.

Some suburban and rural districts are grappling with large numbers of not-ready students, too, but the impact of the reading guarantee in big-city districts is much greater.

Herrholtz said urban districts weren’t surprised that many students are behind. But testing all kids in K-3 and then examining what, exactly, they need help with likely brought clarity to the scope of the undertaking.

Columbus has begun to consider whether it needs to end its policy of social promotion — moving kids on to the next grade with their peers, even if they’re not quite academically ready. District officials are asking: Why wait until they reach third grade to hold them back?

The changes in state law are forcing districts to act fast to help students catch up. Among other things, Cincinnati and Cleveland are adding reading specialists. Toledo schools are tutoring students in small groups and trying to find community agencies to help with after-school reading programs. In Youngstown, all teachers are being trained in reading-intervention methods.

And Columbus has started using a sophisticated, computerized tracking system that lets teachers and administrators see, in real-time, who needs help and in what areas.

State officials are trying to quell panic that thousands of students could be repeating the third grade. Half of students won’t be held back, Herrholtz said, in part because students will improve their reading skills with teachers’ help.

“Our own projection for Columbus is a little under 20 percent, and that’s not even saying they’r e going to be retained. Many of the students that are being counted right now would have exemptions under the law” if they have special needs or are learning English as a second language, he said.

“We can’t assume that the intervention is not going to work, and I think that’s the assumption that people are making. We have to have some faith and confidence in our educators.”

Researchers disagree about whether retaining students helps them.

Some research shows that students who are retained and get special attention do catch up to their peers, academically. But other research shows that, as students get older, they’re more likely to do poorly in school, struggle socially and emotionally and even drop out.

Ohio’s third-grade reading guarantee isn’t a retention program, Herrholtz said. It’s an intervention program. And it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do — get kids help, immediately.

“If, in fact, half of students aren’t on grade level, that’s an issue for us. They deserve that intervention,” he said.