Governor should sign bill easing third-grade retention mandate

student2On May 9th, the State Department of Education announced that 7,970 third graders, or 16.4 percent of Oklahoma’s third grade population, scored unsatisfactory on the state’s standardized 3rd grade reading test, the OCCT. These children and their families will be anxiously waiting this week for word on what Governor Mary Fallin decides to do with HB 2625, the bill that would ease mandatory retention requirements for third-grade students who fail the OCCT.

Under current law, the Reading Sufficiency Act provides that, beginning this year, students who score unsatisfactory on the OCCT must be retained in 3rd grade unless they qualify for a ‘good cause exemption.’  The main provision of HB 2625 allows a Student Reading Proficiency Team, including a student’s parents, teachers and principal, to grant ‘probationary promotion’ to a student who scored unsatisfactory and does not otherwise qualify for an exemption. These students would receive intensive remediation and be reviewed annually by the team until the student demonstrates grade-level proficiency. The probationary probation option would expire in 2015-16 (see our discussion here).

HB 2625 passed by a wide margin with bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives (89-6) and Senate (43-1) and is supported by a broad coalition of parent and educator advocacy groups. However, State Superintendent Janet Barresi and some organizations in the ‘education reform’ movement oppose HB 2625 as a relaxation of higher standards and a continuation of ‘social promotion’.

Both sides tend to agree that developing strong reading skills is critical to students’ academic success and that students who have fallen behind by the third grade face an achievement gap that is very difficult to overcome in later grades. There is also consensus that greater efforts must be made to assist students with reading deficiencies in the early grades – which HB 2625 would require. The real question, however, is whether to impose mandatory retention on students who have failed the OCCT and do not qualify for an existing exemption.  

There are two especially compelling arguments in favor of HB 2625.

Most students who could be retained have special needs or are learning English as a second language

Many Oklahoma children struggle to read because they suffer from a learning disability, such as dyslexia, that makes it difficult to acquire certain academic skills. These students are taught under an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which establishes their annual academic goals. Department of Education data shows that nearly half of the students who scored unsatisfactory on the OCCT this spring (46.8 percent) are students on IEPs, and nearly half of the students on IEPs (46.2 percent) scored unsatisfactory. Under current law, students on IEPs qualify for a good cause exemption only if they have already been retained once and have received intensive remediation in reading for more than two years. Since very few special needs student are currently held back, few will quality under the existing exemption.


The situation is similar for students for whom English is not their native language. More than one-third (35.1 percent) of English-language learners who took the OCCT scored unsatisfactory. Currently, English-language learners are exempted from retention only if they have had less than two years of English instruction and meet other criteria.ELL-reading-test

Overall, of the 7,970 students who scored unsatisfactory, 3,736 are on IEPs and 1,890 are English-language learners. Since some students will fall under both categories, the numbers cannot be summed, but in Jenks Public Schools, 63 of 69 students who scored unsatisfactory are either special ed or English-language learner students, while in Norman Public Schools, 65 percent were either English-language learners or special ed students.

Not all students in these categories struggle with reading and some will be able to make good progress with the right instruction and support. But it is unrealistic to expect many special needs students ever to meet state reading standards, and it is unfair and unproductive to hold them all back because of their reading deficits.While English-language learners as a group are just as capable as other students, research shows that they need intensive focus on language learning in pre-K through 3rd grade to reach the fluency of native speakers, with instruction in both English and their native language. Oklahoma has not provided this focus with any consistency statewide. 

Oklahoma has not invested what is needed to ensure success

Oklahoma’s law is modeled after Florida’s reading retention law, which has resulted in significant improvements in student reading performance. But as we noted in an issue brief last year:

In addition to retention, Florida implemented a series of other interventions for students who did not meet this score and were not granted an exemption from the policy. These include requiring schools to develop academic improvement plans customized to retained students’ needs; requiring students to attend a summer literacy camp; assigning retained students to a “high-performing teacher”; and providing an additional 90 minutes of daily reading instruction during students’ retained year

The Oklahoma legislature has provided only modest funding for reading intervention programs, and as a result, most students have not received the intensive instruction they would need for improved results. We have calculated that Oklahoma has funded the Reading Sufficiency Act at only one-quarter to one-fifth the level that Florida has.  Superintendent Barresi has requested $21.7 million for reading sufficiency and Re3ch coaches, yet state funding has never been more than $6.7 million. How can we penalize students for failure when we have failed to provide the resources we know are needed for success?

HB 2625 recognizes that students with reading deficits who are promoted to fourth grade will require significant help, as will students in earlier grades whose reading skills are lagging. Ultimately, however, parents and teachers are in the best position to decide what’s in a child’s best interests, and HB 2625 offers a sound approach for ensuring that students’ needs are met. Governor Fallin should sign the bill, and she, legislators, educators and families should all recommit to ensuring that everything possible is done to help all students reach their full reading potential.

Governor Fallin has until Wednesday to take action on the bill. If she vetoes HB 2625, the legislature could override her veto with a 3/4 vote of both chambers (76 votes from the House, 36 from the Senate).

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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