Mandatory retention law down to 11th hour

test_stressEarlier this month, some 50,000 Oklahoma third-graders came head-to-head with high-stakes testing. These 8- and 9-year old children took the state standardized reading test known as the OCCT.  Under revisions to the Reading Sufficiency Act passed in 2011, beginning this year, children who score ‘unsatisfactory’ on the OCCT and do not qualify for one of the law’s ‘good cause exemptions’ must be retained in third grade next fall.

The high-stakes test has been causing high levels of stress for third-graders and their families all year.  One young girl, who is on an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, told her mom the night before the test, “‘Mommy, I don’t want to take the test. What if I get them all wrong? I always get them all wrong.”  Most students with special needs, including dyslexia and other learning disorders, can be exempted from mandatory retention only if they have already been retained once and have received two years of intensive reading remediation (those with severe cognitive disabilities may also be exempt).  OK Policy has calculated that more than one-quarter of students on IEPs, or some 2,000 students, could be held back this year, even if they are making progress on their IEP goals. Students with limited English proficiency are also at high risk for being retained.

This session, Oklahoma legislators have launched an eleventh-hour attempt to modify the RSA before its mandatory retention provisions kick in. While many bills were never heard or died along the way, several significant bills are still alive. Among them, SB 1971 broadens the exemption to mandatory promotion for students on IEPs and, in its latest version, creates an appeals process for students who are subject to retention. SB 1348 adds an exemption for students enrolled in a language immersion program. [UPDATE – April 29th: SB 1971 and SB 1348 did not pass the full House and are now dead]

The most extensive changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act are contained in HB 2625 by Rep. Katie Henke and Sen. Gary Stanislawski. In its original version, HB 2625 would have turned the decision of whether to retain or promote any student who scored unsatisfactory on the third-grade reading test to a team composed of the student’s parents, teacher, principal, and school reading specialist. Students could be promoted if the team decided it was “the best option for the student.” Whether promoted or retained, students would continue to receive intensive reading instruction.

HB 2625 passed the House by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 84-6, with even the House authors of mandatory retention voting in favor.  Senate Republicans, however, were unwilling to let the bill through in a way that was seen as gutting the original intent of the 2011 revisions. They proposed changes in committee and on the Senate floor. Under the most recent version of the bill, which passed the full Senate on April 16th:

  • Students who have demonstrated reading proficiency at the beginning of third grade will be notified prior to the start of standardized testing that they have satisfied RSA requirements and will not be subject to retention.
  • Students who are assessed as below proficient will be defined as having a ‘significant reading deficiency’. Those who receive a score of ‘limited knowledge’ on the OCCT may be automatically promoted to fourth grade but their parents will be notified that they are not reading at grade level and they will be entitled to intensive remediation services.
  • For the 2013-14 and 2014-15 schools years only, students who: (a) are determined to have a ‘significant reading deficiency’, (b) score below‘ limited knowledge’ on the OCCT (i.e. score ‘unsatisfactory’), and (c) do not qualify for one of the existing good cause exemptions, may be granted ‘probationary promotion’ to fourth grade if that is the unanimous recommendation of a Student Reading Proficiency Team composed of the child’s parents, school principal, third-grade reading teacher, a higher-grade teacher and a certified reading specialist. The decision to grant a probationary promotion must be affirmed by the district superintendent. Students under a probationary promotion would receive intensive remediation and would be reviewed annually by the team until the student demonstrates grade-level proficiency. The ‘probationary probation option’ would expire in 2015-16.

While the Senate version of HB 2625 leaves the ultimate decision on retention or promotion to a team, there are certain to be objections to Sen. Jolley’s proposal. The bill would seem to require or offer additional remediation services for many more students in third grade and beyond, even as the RSA continues to be badly underfunded. The “probationary” label may not be seen as appropriate for fourth-graders by parents or educators and may add to stigmatization of children with poor reading skills. The requirement that ‘probationary promotion’ be decided unanimously may also cause problems when one or more team members is in disagreement.

HB 2625 will now return to the House, which can either accept the Senate’s version or send the bill to conference committee, where it may not get decided until close to the adjournment of the legislative session on May 30th. The bill does contain an emergency clause, which means if it passes by a sufficient majority, its provisions would take immediate effect. However, there is only a narrow window between when schools are expected to get students test results (May 9th) and the end of the school year.  Making sense of the new law and determining which students will be promoted to fourth grade and which will be held back will ensure that this is going to be an especially long, sweat-filled summer for many Oklahoma families.

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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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