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Columbus City Schools lowers its reading proficiency goals due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

Columbus City Schools District Office.
Nick Evans

Columbus City Schools have lowered the goals set by district leaders to improve the percent of 3rd grade students that are proficient in reading and mathematics for the next five years.

The CCS Board of Education voted unanimously to change its goals at a meeting last week. The district set a goal in April 2021 for 55% of students to be proficient in reading in the 2026 school year, but with the new goals, the district won't reach 45% by 2028.

This reduction comes as school districts around the country are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic's impacts on students learning the early skills that set the stage for the remainder of their K-12 schooling. The proficiency levels are scored on the Ohio State Test administered starting in 3rd grade.

A presentation by CCS Chief of Strategy and Performance Russell Brown outlined what went into setting these new goals to get CCS students up from the 34.5% proficiency the district currently has. He said the district would need to show drastic improvement to even get close to their original goal by 2026.

"While I would love to be talking about goals that involve 20% of change in three years. That's not real. No one's done that in the state of Ohio. There's no place to look to that has that sort of gain," Brown said.

CCS has almost 45,000 students in over 100 schools and Brown highlighted just how diverse the needs are for students in the state's largest district. He said the district has a much higher poverty rate and over 18%, or more than 8,000 students, have disabilities. Another 18% are students who are learning the English language along with other languages.

"The impact of the pandemic is ongoing and it isn't a transitory thing by any means," Brown said.

Brown cited data that said negative losses in mathematics and reading were much greater in systems like CCS, where students have multiple needs and the districts need to meet those needs over time.

Before the presentation from Brown, Ohio State University Political Science Professor Vladimir Kogan criticized the changes the board voted on.

"You will cut the current target by nearly 1/3 and send a message that you think it is okay for nearly 60% of Columbus 3rd graders not to be able to read at grade level. That is unacceptable and certainly not the promise you made during the levy campaign," Kogan said.

Kogan argued that none of the students in the later years of the goals were even in Kindergarten at the time the pandemic hit, so the decreases shouldn't apply to these incoming classes.

Brown argued the pandemic is having an impact on students that are only just now entering Kindergarten.

"(These students) have greater needs than they used to. The impact of the pandemic impacted the whole child. It impacted our whole family and it impacted our entire community... and it is ongoing," Brown said.

CCS Superintendent Angela Chapman agreed that the goals are needed and called them more realistic and attainable. But Chapman also called on more resources to be allocated by the state for early childhood education to get more children in pre-K courses.

"The intervention needs to be sooner not later. We need to intervene and provide our students with access to academic literacy and reading and math intervention and support prior to turning five," Chapman said.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.