Calling it a significant step forward in combating illiteracy in Oklahoma, Monday state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi urged parents to make themselves aware of the third-grade reading law taking effect this school year. The measure, part of the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), designates that students who score Unsatisfactory in the reading assessment cannot be promoted to fourth grade until they can demonstrate what typically would be deemed a second-grade reading level or higher.
The third-grade reading law is aimed at curbing Oklahoma’s nearly 30-percent illiteracy rate. Oklahoma joins 10 states and the District of Columbia in establishing similar policy.
“We do no favors for students who are passed on to the next grade without having the most fundamental ability to read,” Barresi said. “The ability to read is a gateway to success in academics and in life. Reading isn’t just a subject, but the foundation of all learning.
“It is a tragedy when a child in our public schools cannot read. In tomorrow’s world, the inability to read is a sentence to a lower quality of life. That won’t happen on my watch. Oklahoma has great teachers who will help make this law succeed.”
She made her remarks in a Monday news conference at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Cleveland Schools Superintendent John Weaver candidly admits to having “concerns” about the law and the test.
“My concerns include the pressure that this test and this law puts on nine-year-old children. The mandatory retention law takes parenting and educating children out of the hands of parents and local school districts,” he said.
Weaver said another concern is that this retention law also applies to special education students who have an individual education plan.
“Retention at any grade level should be a decision that is made by parents and educators together after looking at a child’s individual strengths and weaknesses. The decision should not be based on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ state law endorsed by Janet Barresi,” he said.
Education experts have noted that being unable to read at an appropriate grade level can lead to an array of other problems. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 88 percent of 19-year-olds who could not read proficiently by third-grade are likely to drop out of high school. Seventy percent of U.S. prison inmates cannot read above a fourth-grade level.
The RSA, Barresi said, is designed to ensure that third-graders are promoted to fourth grade with the reading skills necessary for the challenges of school and life.
The Cleveland superintendent emphasized that school districts across the state continue to implement programs that successfully remediate and assist students who are not performing on grade level without the threat of retention.
Weaver said the Cleveland Intermediate School third grade team has just completed the RSA projection worksheet that the State Department of Education (SDE) requested. From that study, Weaver said CIS Principal Mark Williams has reported that as many as 44 third graders are in jeopardy of not being promoted to the fourth grade based on the state’s criteria.
“We are in the process of evaluating how many of those students will qualify under one of the six ‘good cause’ exemptions. I anticipate that more than half of the 44 identified students will be exempt but we will not have the exact number until a later date,” Weaver said.
“The Reading Sufficiency Act will help make sure that Oklahoma children have the reading skills necessary for school, work and life,” Barresi said. “The purpose of the third-grade reading law is to provide successful reading intervention for children who are struggling. We owe it to future generations of Oklahomans to end the cycle that perpetuates illiteracy and limits opportunities.”
Gov. Mary Fallin signed the third-grade reading amendment in 2011.
Under the law, schools are required to use benchmark assessments at the beginning of each year for students from kindergarten through third-grade to identify children at risk of retention for reading. Schools must implement individualized reading plans for these children, with parents required to be notified in writing about the intensive intervention.
Weaver said that Principal Williams and his team of teachers have been doing extensive remediation all year.
“This year we have added two and a half full time positions at the elementary schools to address the reading needs of students in grades K-5. Students in these remedial groups get 90 to 145 minutes per day in small group reading instruction,” Weaver stressed.
He noted that the local district has been forced to fund these initiatives on its own since the state has not provided additional funding for the RSA mandates.
“The Cleveland School District will continue to work toward all students being successful on the state’s reading exam and on all the other core area tests,” Weaver concluded.
“All learning, whether academic or technical, is predicated on the ability to read,” said Dr. Robert Sommers, Oklahoma Secretary of Education and Workforce Development. “The third-grade reading law guarantee assures all children can read and, in turn, learn. Reading is essential to success in school, in CareerTech programs, in higher education, and in the workplace. Nothing in education is more important than assuring every child can read. Without the ability to read, success in school and in the workplace is hampered severely.”
Barresi suggested that parents concerned about whether their child might be at risk should contact the child’s teacher.
To help ensure success for RSA, the OSDE is requesting $16 million in funding for the law.
To be promoted to fourth grade, third-graders need to score Limited Knowledge (typically a second-grade level), Proficient (typically a third-grade level) or higher on the reading portion of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT).
Nevertheless, the SDE informed that if a child scores Unsatisfactory, there are additional options to demonstrate basic reading skills, including a student portfolio and alternative assessment tests, (SAT 10, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Terranova).
The six ‘good cause’ exemptions Weaver referred to are:
• English Language Learners who have had less than two years of instruction in English and be identified as Limited-English Proficient (LEP)/English Language Learner (ELL) on a screening tool approved by the Oklahoma State Department of Education Office of Bilingual/Migrant Education and have a Language Instruction Educational Plan (LIEP) in place prior to the administration of the third-grade criterion referenced test; and the student must have had less than two years of instruction in an English Language Learner (ELL) program
• Students with disabilities whose Individualized Education Program (IEP) indicates they are to be assessed with the Oklahoma Alternate Assessment Program (OAAP)
• Students who demonstrate an acceptable level of performance (minimum of 45th percentile) on an alternative standardized reading test approved by the State Board of Education (SAT 10, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Terranova)
• Students who demonstrate through a teacher-developed portfolio that they can read on grade level. The student portfolio shall include evidence demonstrating the student’s mastery of the Oklahoma state standards in reading equal to grade-level performance on the reading portion of the OCCT.
• Students with disabilities who take the OCCT and have an IEP that states they have received intense remediation in reading for more than two years but still demonstrate a deficiency in reading and were previously retained one year or were in a transitional grade during kindergarten, first-, second- or third-grade
Students who have received intensive remediation in reading for two or more years but still demonstrate a deficiency in reading and who already have been retained in kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade or third-grade for a total of two years. Transitional grades count.
Approval of an exemption depends on whether the child’s teacher, principal and district superintendent all agree that he or she should be promoted to fourth grade.
Supporters of the higher expectations contend Oklahoma can ill afford to delay the reform.
“Reading is the most crucial skill we teach our young children and the foundation to all other learning, so it is important that by third grade, all students are at a basic proficiency,” said State Chamber of Oklahoma President and CEO Fred Morgan. “Now is not the time to delay education reform. The future of Oklahoma’s economy and its ability to compete in a global marketplace is at risk if deadlines are moved back in the name of political expediency.”
Brian Hunt, executive director of Stand for Children Oklahoma, said the education advocacy group is committed to advocating “for additional resources to ensure our teachers and schools have the tools they need to make certain students successfully make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
“But equally important is the power of a parent being their child’s strongest advocate. Keep the lines of communication open with your child’s teacher and principal.”
Barresi said the RSA will help children.
“If we fail to prepare children to read — especially as they move from third to fourth grade — we are stacking the deck against them,” she said.