iStock_000004265279XSmallIn 2011, Oklahoma amended the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) to ban social promotion (promoting a child based on age rather than academic achievement). The new law requires schools to retain students who do not pass a reading test and do not meet other criteria for exemptions by the end of the third grade. The first group of students affected by this policy will complete the third grade in 2014.

A new issue brief by OK Policy and CAP Tulsa provides an in-depth analysis of how this law will affect Oklahoma students and schools. The brief examines the history of the RSA, what current research says about third grade reading and retention, and how Oklahoma is implementing the law both in local school districts and at the state level. Among the brief’s findings:

  • The RSA retention requirements could increase third-grade retentions by as few as 2,200 students (if reading scores improve significantly by 2014, and if 40 percent of students are promoted due to exemptions) or by as many as 3,000 students per year (if current trends in reading scores continue and if only 30 percent of students are exempt).
  • At the current cost of $8,301 per student, the additional year of schooling for retained students will cost $18 to $25 million statewide in 2023-24. In the short term, the policy will cost an additional $900,000 to $1.3 million per year to educate retained students in the third grade. There will also be additional costs of intensive reading acceleration classes for retained students. The estimated statewide costs of these smaller classes is $400,000 or less per year.
  • Oklahoma’s third-grade retention requirement was modeled on a policy in Florida that has demonstrated success in improving student achievement. However, Florida’s successful program involved not just retention, but also annual spending of $130 million for reading instruction in all grades and schools, with a strong emphasis on schools with many struggling readers. Adjusting for the smaller number of students in Oklahoma, an equivalent level of reading funding would be $31 million, which is five times more than Oklahoma has ever funded the RSA. In the past two budget years, Oklahoma has defunded the RSA entirely.

The RSA is an important part of efforts to improve third grade reading and thus students’ school and life courses. However, the RSA legislation and its implementation so far are incomplete solutions that leave students at risk for reading deficiencies. To achieve the goals of the RSA, we recommend that Oklahoma should provide adequate and reliable funding for remediation and the short-term costs of retention, start identifying and helping students at risk earlier in their school careers, and invest in student remediation and teacher professional development programs that are proven effective.

By improving the Reading Sufficiency Act and funding the reforms, Oklahoma can set its schoolchildren on a more certain path to success.

You can download the full issue brief as a pdf here