New third-grade reading law could block thousands of special ed student from advancing to fourth grade

readingA major change in Oklahoma’s education system is about to kick in. Under new provisions of the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), third-grade students who do not attain a satisfactory score on a state standardized  reading test will be retained in third grade at the start of the next school year, unless they meet limited criteria for an exemption. While the new law will have far-ranging impacts for schoolchildren and schools, for special education students with learning disabilities, the impact of RSA may be especially great.

As we discussed earlier this year in a detailed issue brief produced with CAP Tulsa, more than 5,300 third graders in 2012, or 11 percent of those taking statewide tests, scored unsatisfactory for reading. Our brief estimated that the new retention mandate could increase the number of students retained by 2,200 – 3,000 students statewide in 2014, depending on how much reading scores improve and the number of students who qualify for exemptions.

While various populations are at high risk for retention, special education students who are on an IEP, or Individualized Education Program, may be affected most greatly. In 2012, 7,645 third-graders taking statewide reading tests – or 16 percent – were IEP students, according to State Department of Education data. Until this year, students on IEPs could take either the standard reading assessment, the OCCT, or a less demanding alternative test known as the OMAAP (Oklahoma Modified Alternative Assessment Program).  Of the 3,786 IEP students taking the OMAAP, only 7 percent of students scored unsatisfactory. But among the 3,859 IEP students taking the OCCT, a full 25 percent received a score of unsatisfactory.

Oklahoma is now eliminating the OMAAP, in line with a national movement away from modified assessments.  Beginning in 2014, all first-time test-takers will take the OCCT. Students with special needs will be allowed accommodations – such as flexible scheduling, extra time, alternate locations, or assistive technology – in accordance with their IEPs, but will be tested and evaluated in the same fashion as regular education students.

What will happen when all special education students, most of whom are on IEPs due to learning-related disabilities, are assessed on the OCCT? We know that 25 percent of special ed students who took the OCCT in 2012 scored unsatisfactory. Assuming that those taking the OMAAP were generally lower-functioning and lower-achieving than those taking the OCCT, there is good reason to expect that the unsatisfactory rate among the entire special needs population will far surpass 25 percent on the 2014 tests.

RSA- Good cause exemptionNor will most special education students qualify for good cause exemptions. IEP students will be eligible for an exemption only under the following circumstances:

  • If they are assessed with the Oklahoma Alternative Assessment Program (OAAP). This is a very limited segment of the special ed population “with the most significant cognitive disabilities,” based on an annual determination by the IEP team. Districts are subject to a cap of 1 percent of students who can be counted as proficient under the OAAP, which involves creating a portfolio showing the student’s skills in lieu of standardized tests; OR
  • If the student has previously been retained once and has received intensive remediation in reading for more than two years.

This means that in almost all cases, special education students who fail the OCCT in 2014 and have not previously been held back, or have been held back but have not already received two years of intensive reading remediation, will be retained next year. (There are other exemptions for English Language Learner students, or students who can demonstrate they are reading on grade level on an alternative assessment or student portfolio, but these are likely to have limited application). Since retention prior to third year currently is rare, especially for IEP students, most IEP students who fail the OCCT this spring will be held back next year.

Supporters of the law contend that special education students should be held to the same standards as other students and that teachers and schools have been provided additional resources to help students attain grade-level competency. Yet annual funding for the Reading Sufficiency Act has been under $7 million, not even one-quarter of what our report found would be needed to replicate the success other states have had in bringing about significant improvements in reading scores. Some RSA money for best practice programs, such as Reading Recovery, actually exclude students on IEPs. And it should be noted that beginning in 2015, special education and regular education students face even more uncertainty due to all-new testing based on the Common Core curriculum.

As in other areas of its education reform agenda, Oklahoma has set lofty goals for improving educational performance, but has then failed to provide the resources needed for success. In this case, it is likely to be thousands of children with learning disabilities who will bear the cost.

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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.

7 thoughts on “New third-grade reading law could block thousands of special ed student from advancing to fourth grade

  1. It is critical that the RSA Good Cause exemption for ELLs be clarified. The exemption does not exempt all students who are English Language Learners or Limited English Proficient. This specific exemption states that ELLs who have received English Language Development for LESS THAN TWO YEARS will be exempted. This exemption applies to less than 1% of 3rd grade ELLs in Tulsa PS who took the OCCT reading test in 2013.

  2. Question: If a student is on an IEP, identified as having a learning disability then they could apply for the LNH scholarship, correct? If parents chose to send their child to a private school, using this voucher program, then the child no longer has to be retained? Therefore, circumventing the accountability system?

    1. That’s a good try. But since citizens can now take out a case against parents who utilize LNH scholarships you run the risk of being dragged through a nasty court battle.

  3. Excellent points, Laura and A. Holter. We will need to look more closely at the ELL exemption and perhaps write a follow-up post on that subject. And we also have to look more closely to see whether children with special needs who are attending private schools under a Henry scholarship are subject to testing requirements and other provisions

  4. If this Oklahoma legislature would plan a trip from Tulsa to London, England — which is about 4500 miles, here’s how they’d do it:
    1) We want to go to London.
    2) We don’t think it’s as far away as everyone says.
    3) We authorize a trip covering 3,000 miles.
    4) The travelers die at sea.

  5. Well said! There is a plan to retain, but no plan to reform. Kids have no say so in whether or not they recieve appropriate education nor are they mature enough to understand at age 8,9,or 10 this entire process. Adults are the problem. The truth is that by age 13 or 14 a child is able to prove their devotion to their own education. It’s sickening that people believe that government or even educators should make that decision when clearly they have no idea of the reason, the effect or a plan to prevent

  6. While it is a good thing to have a standard of education to provide the best graduate possible, I don’t think it is the students fault in this case let alone that they are still a child. It is the teacher responsibility in the first place to teach, and if they fail, it would not make any sense to fail the students while the teacher recieves no punishment whatsoever.

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