As the political dust settles on 3rd grade reading, what’s happening in schools?

Rebecca Hollis
Rebecca Hollis

This post is by Rebecca Hollis, who worked with OK Policy during the summer as a Southern Education Leadership Initiative Fellow. Rebecca attends Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH and is part of the Philosophy, Politics, and the Public Honors Program.

In 2011, Oklahoma amended the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), requiring schools to retain third grade students who score “unsatisfactory” on the reading portion of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT), unless the student meets certain exceptions. The upcoming school year is the first year that third graders will be retained under the law.

School districts and individual schools have implemented new strategies to comply with the law, including both preventative measures to increase OCCT scores and also remedial actions after the release of scores. While a focus on increased reading ability is important, some districts have experienced strain because of their increased efforts without sufficient funding. This post examines what is being done before and after retention to improve students’ reading scores.

How is retention determined?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If a third grade student scores unsatisfactory on their OCCT reading test, they are automatically considered for retention; however, there are two ways a student can still be promoted to fourth grade. The first means of promotion is through a “good-cause exemption .” These six exemptions include some English Language Learner students, certain Individualized Education Program students, scoring satisfactory on an alternative test, a portfolio, past remediation efforts, and certain students with disabilities. All exemptions must be approved by the student’s teacher and principal. The portfolio exemption must also be approved by the student’s district superintendent.

The recent passage of House Bill 2625 created another way for a student to receive “probationary promotion” if they do not qualify for a good-cause exemption. For a student to receive probationary promotion, they must be evaluated by a Student Reading Proficiency Team, comprised of a parent/guardian, the student’s teacher, a fourth grade teacher, the school principal, and a certified reading specialist. This team must unanimously approve probationary promotion. After team approval, the superintendent must also approve promotion. The option of probationary promotion will only be in effect for two years, unless lawmakers act again to make it a permanent amendment to the RSA.

School districts’ use of these exemptions varies widely. For Tulsa Public Schools (TPS), 225 of the 1,128 third graders who scored unsatisfactory  have already qualified for promotion to fourth grade. Another 280 of these TPS third graders have either been identified or recommended for probationary promotion. In Oklahoma City Public Schools 1,024 third graders received “unsatisfactory scores;” however, about 300 of these students could qualify for a “good-cause” exemption. In Jenks Public Schools, just 9 out of the 68  students who scored unsatisfactory will be retained in third grade.  In a smaller district, Sapulpa Public Schools, 34 students received an “unsatisfactory” score, and according to Larry Smith, Deputy Superintendent for Sapulpa Public Schools, 13 of those students met good-cause exemptions and 5 students were promoted through committee approval.

What are schools doing before retention kicks in?

Photo by Flickr user mosaic36.
Photo by Flickr user mosaic36.

The RSA does not require specific methods for reading remediation; therefore, each school district has taken slightly different approaches to implementation. Many school districts incorporated increased reading instruction for at risk students during the school year. While this took different forms in each district, instruction was often provided through afterschool tutoring, language arts specialists, differentiated instruction, and further teacher training.

Another preparation during the 2013-14 school year was the development of individual student portfolios. Under the “good-cause” exemptions in RSA, a student who scored unsatisfactory can be promoted if a portfolio of their work demonstrates mastery of state standards beyond retention level. A student’s teacher must compile a portfolio, and the student’s teacher, principal, and superintendent must approve promotion based on the portfolio. Compiling and reviewing portfolios increased work for teachers, school administrators, and district staff.For Sapulpa Public Schools, portfolio compilation started when students began first grade, requiring teachers to keep track of students’ work for two years. In Union Public Schools (UPS), portfolio compilation began at the beginning of a student’s third grade year and continued throughout the school year. For many school districts, portfolios have served as a main way to demonstrate students’ mastery of grade level reading.

Many districts have conducted summer academies for students that received unsatisfactory scores. These academies provide intensive reading instruction. The duration of these academies differ by district. For Sapulpa Public Schools, instruction lasted for two months. In Tulsa Public Schools and Union Public Schools, students received one month of summer instruction. The goal of these academies is to improve reading skills and increase scores on a second test administered at the end of the summer. If scores increase or a student demonstrates mastery of state standards, they could be promoted to the fourth grade.

What happens after retention?

While districts are taking great steps to increase reading ability in students’ at risk of retention, there could still be students who are retained. Many districts will focus on reading instruction during their year of retention. In Sapulpa Public Schools this instruction will include two transition classes. Students will spend half a day at these transition classes and then return to their normal classes for the remainder of the day. Union Public Schools will implement similar additional reading instruction both for retained students and also students granted probationary promotion. This instruction will also extend to students who scored one level above “unsatisfactory,” receiving a “limited knowledge” on their OCCT.

While school districts are taking steps to better reading comprehension, it is also crucial to look closer at how the legislation affects each district and individual school. While more focus on reading is crucial in our education system, according to Larry Smith, “RSA, as enacted this year, caused added stress for teachers, families and students over the importance of a single test. The modifications approved this legislative session will be helpful, but were too late to impact the 2014 testing session.” One of the largest challenges raised by school districts is funding. Schools have increased instruction and implemented preventative actions without much funding.  Also, schools will need to provide more programs to retained students during the upcoming school year. While monetary burden varies by district, Larry Smith affirmed that to meet the requirements of RSA to provide services for K-2nd grade students, Sapulpa Public School District supplements between $15,000 to $22,000 annually. While an increased focus on reading is beneficial to our education system, it is crucial to guarantee school districts are supported throughout the implementation process to achieve the law’s desired outcomes.

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