Uncertain future for third grade reading reforms

Photo by US Department of Education / CC BY 2.0
Photo by US Department of Education / CC BY 2.0

One year ago, parents and educators organized a powerful campaign to amend a state law that would have automatically retained thousands of 3rd-grade children who failed a standardized reading test. In response, the Legislature passed a bill temporarily revising the law, and then  mustered the two-thirds super-majority needed to overturn the Governor’s veto of the bill. This year, a strong effort is underway to make last year’s fix permanent – but the supporters of automatic retention are not giving up.

Under provisions of the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) passed in 2011, third-grade students who did not attain a satisfactory score on a state standardized reading test (the OCCT) administered in the spring of 2014 would have been automatically retained in 3rd grade at the start of the current 2014-15 school year, unless they met limited criteria for a good cause exemption. Opponents objected to basing retention or advancement on test results, without the opportunity for parents and teachers to consider a child’s best interests given a full range of circumstances.

When the 2014 reading test results were released in early May, over 7,000 third-graders, or 17 percent of all 3rd-grade students, tested unsatisfactory and would have been ineligible to move up to 4th grade unless they qualified for an exemption. As expected, special needs students and English-language learners were disproportionately affected, with 46.2 percent of 3rd graders with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 34.9 percent of English-language learners scoring unsatisfactory. Most of these students would not have qualified for promotion under a good cause exemption.

In the final weeks of the 2014 session, the Legislature passed HB 2625, which allowed a ‘probationary promotion’ for a student if approved unanimously by a Student Reading Proficiency Team, made up of the student’s parents, teachers and principal. These students would receive intensive remediation and be reviewed annually by the team until the student demonstrates grade-level proficiency. The probationary probation option is set to expire at the end of this school year.

HB 2625 passed both chambers by overwhelming margins but was vetoed by Governor Fallin, with encouragement from then-Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, the State Chamber of Commerce, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and other staunch supporters of high-stakes testing. In the waning days of session, the Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto, a move which Barresi condemned as a “pathetic” step back.

While some critics of the revisions predicted that putting the final decision back in the hands of parents and teachers would mean that virtually all students would gain a free pass to the 4th grade, the results show otherwise. Of 7,248 students who scored unsatisfactory on the 3rd-grade reading test in 2014, 35 percent were retained in the 3rd grade; 24 percent were promoted by the student’s reading team, and 41 percent were promoted through good cause exemptions, according to data from the State Department of Education. Many students were granted probationary promotion after participating in summer reading academies and other programs aimed at boosting reading skills.


With the provisions of HB 2625 set to expire in a year, there’s been strong support to adopt a permanent fix this session so as to avoid going into next year’s testing season with the same uncertainties as last year. A bill by Rep. Katie Henke to simply make the provisions of HB 2625 permanent passed committee but failed to gain a hearing in the full House. Two Senate bills, SB 785 (Sen. Jolley/Rep. Denney) and SB 630 (Sen. Ford/ Rep. Casey), are now the primary vehicles addressing the Reading Sufficiency Act. While they differ in detail, both bills extend the main provisions of HB 2625 though 2019-2020; they also:

  • Provide for intensive remediation for any student shown to have a reading deficiency in 1st or 2nd grade, until the student is able to demonstrate reading proficiency;
  • Place the same conditions for retention or probationary promotion based on the recommendation of a Student Reading Proficiency Team on students who test at ‘limited knowledge’ on the 3rd-grade reading test.

In practice, by providing for an intensive remediation plan for struggling students beginning in 1st grade and by including students who test at ‘limited knowledge’ under the remediation requirements, this year’s bills will provide more services to a considerably greater number of students. Last year, 14 percent of 3rd graders tested at ‘limited knowledge’; along with the 18 percent who tested ‘unsatisfactory’, schools would be looking at providing intensive remediation for some one-third of all students beginning in 1st grade (in some school districts, the percentage would be much higher). However, the Legislature has never fully funded the Reading Sufficiency Act, and it’s unclear how schools will provide those expanded services at a time of additional funding cuts and teacher shortages.

The two Reading Sufficiency Act bills passed the Senate unanimously with their titles stricken, which means they would need to go through conference committee before final passage. They are now scheduled for floor votes in the House, where support from some key legislators seems less certain. Advocacy organizations, including Stand for Children, the Parents Legislative Advocacy Committee, and the Oklahoma Education Association, have made passage of permanent changes to the RSA one of their highest priorities for the remaining weeks of session.

Learn More // Do More


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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.