In 2011, the Oklahoma legislature approved major amendments to the Reading Sufficiency Act, a law originally enacted in 1997 to improve Oklahoma children’s reading skills. As of this year, the law requires third-grade students who score “unsatisfactory” on a state standardized reading test known as the OCCT to be retained in third grade, unless they meet limited criteria for an exemption. Schools would have no discretion or choice about retaining students with an unsatisfactory test score who do not qualify for one of the legislatively-defined exemptions.
The legislature is now considering two measures – HB 2625 and HB 2773 – that mark a significant change of direction from the mandatory retention approach in current law. Under HB 2625, authored by Rep. Katie Henke (R-Tulsa), a team composed of a parent, teacher, principal, and certified reading specialist would determine whether a child who tests unsatisfactory would be retained or promoted to fourth grade, based on “the best option for the student.” HB 2773, by Rep. Jadine Nollan (R-Sand Springs), would create a district-level appeals process for students who are retained in third grade. HB 2625 passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 84-6, while HB 2773 has passed out of committee and is awaiting action by the full House.
The measures to curb the retention mandate respond to a groundswell of concern expressed in recent months by parents and educators. Everyone in the debate acknowledges the crucial importance of strong reading skills to educational success, and all support intensive efforts to identify and assist students with reading deficiencies. However, there are several critical problems with current law:
- The Reading Sufficiency Act is inadequately funded: Bringing all third-grade students up to a satisfactory reading level requires a strong investment of resources for tutoring, materials, summer programs, professional development, and other upfront and remediation services. Oklahoma modeled its retention law on Florida. A study prepared by OK Policy and Community Action Project of Tulsa found that, based on the per pupil amount spent in Florida to bring about significant gains in reading scores, Oklahoma would need to spend about $30 million annually for reading programs. Yet Oklahoma has allocated less than $7 million annually for the Reading Sufficiency Act. This year’s RSA allocation is about $76 per student in K-3 reading below grade level, and funds weren’t allocated until mid-November. The State Superintendent of Instruction has requested substantial funding increases for RSA in recent years, yet continues to support the retention mandate even in the absence of the resources needed to implement it properly.
- Resources targeting third-graders would be more effective on children in younger grades: With students facing the imminent prospect of retention, many schools are focusing all available resources on helping third graders pass this year’s standardized test or develop a portfolio to show they can read at grade level. This summer, many third graders who failed the test will attend summer academy reading programs to try to make the grade. With scarce and inadequate resources to serve the full at-risk population, students in kindergarten and first grade are not getting the help they need when it would make the most difference.
- Children with special needs and English Language Learners will be particularly affected: Students with learning disabilities and students with limited English skills are at the greatest risk of being held back in third grade. Exemptions for these populations apply only under limited circumstances. Special education students who score unsatisfactory on the standardized test must, in most cases, have already been retained once and received two years of intensive remediation to be promoted. As we have discussed previously, there is good reason to expect that more than one-quarter of third grade students on IEPs (Individual Education Plans) could be retained this year. Special education students could be held back even if they are making progress towards their IEP goals. English Language Learners are eligible for an exemption only if they have received less than two years of English instruction.
- Too much weight is placed on an imperfect test: Although state officials are quick to explain that the decision to retain or promote is not based solely on a student’s result on “a single test on a single day,” the standardized third-grade reading test has a disproportionate impact. Some educators point out that the 3rd Grade Reading OCCT is only partly designed to measure reading comprehension and cannot properly determine a child’s reading levels. For young students who are struggling academically, the stakes of the OCCT are high indeed. Rep. Nollan recently stated, “Overtesting, teaching to the test, high-stakes testing all has been detrimental…I had a third-grader in my district who threw up on her test. This is an 8-year-old.”
Passage of HB 2625 or HB 2773 would not mean forsaking the goal of reading sufficiency for all Oklahoma students. In fact, under HB 2625, whether the advisory team decides to promote or to retain a child who has scored unsatisfactory on the standardized test, the child must still receive intensive reading interventions. It would simply mean that the decisions about what is best for young children would be made by those who know them best – their parents and teachers – not by a state legislator or a standardized test.