reading test
Tulsa Public School students read in class. (Dustin Raype)

(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)

Oklahoma is raising the bar on its pivotal, high-stakes reading test administered to third graders, which is likely to leave more students at risk of repeating the third grade.

Twelve percent of third-graders, those who scored “unsatisfactory” – the lowest level – were flagged for retention in 2016.

Beginning in 2017-18, students will have to score “proficient” in reading to receive automatic promotion to fourth grade — a level above what is required now. If students’ reading skills remain relatively steady, 28 percent of third graders, or about 14,900, could face retention next year, or more than double the number who did in 2016.

A disproportionate number of low-income, black and Hispanic students have scored poorly on the test each year since 2014 and were subject to retention. If the new level were applied to students in 2016, nearly 50 percent of black students, 40 percent of Hispanic students and 34 percent of low-income students would not have qualified for automatic promotion to third grade.

“We know the bar has been raised, and families will begin to appreciate even more strongly the need to be reading earlier,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

Results from 2017, which were tested under new, more rigorous English/language arts standards, and from 2018, in which the higher proficiency level will apply, are likely to identify more students in need of reading support, she said.

“We can no longer accept that a student would not be prepared and ready. They should be prepared and ready long before third grade to be reading at grade level or above,” Hofmeister said.

The higher level of reading skills required in 2017-18 were originally supposed to start in 2016-17 but were delayed a year at Hofmeister’s request. She said she was concerned about raising the proficiency level the same year that the more rigorous academic standards were implemented. Oklahoma’s standards in reading were revised in 2016-17 for all grade levels.

‘Learning to read’ versus ‘reading to learn’

While research shows early reading skills are critical to academic success, there are also studies that point to the ill effects of retention. A 2014 study by a Notre Dame sociologist found that students retained in elementary school were less likely to graduate from high school, even when compared to siblings in the same family.

Oklahoma is one of 24 states and Washington, D.C., that require or recommend that third-grade students pass a reading test to be promoted to fourth grade, which is when students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” according to research.

Students’ scores have ticked upward since 2014, when 16.3 percent did not pass the exam.

New law includes parents in evaluation teams

Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act allows students who didn’t pass to receive a probationary promotion if recommended by a team of parents, teachers and a reading specialist. English-language learners and special-education students can also receive exemptions. Data from the state Department of Education show most students who fail the test advance to fourth grade with an exemption: Of the 7,573 students who scored unsatisfactory, 1,674, or 22 percent, were actually retained.

Parental inclusion in the teams that evaluate students for retention were originally set to sunset this year, but legislation introduced by Rep. Katie Henke (R-Tulsa) and signed into law made parents’ involvement in the groups permanent. The move was celebrated by education advocates.

Rep. Dennis Casey (R-Morrison), a former school superintendent who in 2015 carried a bill to extend the retention committees, said he believes involving parents and teachers is a critical part of the process, especially with the higher proficiency level going into effect.

“People are not black and white. There’s a lot of gray,” he said. “You have to let people evaluate each individual situation and determine what’s best for the child.”

Funding for at-risk students remains uncertain

Educators are sometimes critical of the pass-fail nature of the reading test, saying it puts too much pressure on young students. But there is widespread support for measures to identify students at risk of retention beginning in kindergarten and provide additional supports to improve their reading skills before third grade.

The added support requires more money, educators say, but that funding is declining.

School districts received $77 per at-risk student in fiscal year 2016, but that dropped to $56 in 2017. The amount dedicated to the program for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1, has not yet been determined.

Hofmeister said the funding for reading support is jeopardized by a thinning of state dollars as well as a possible reduction of federal money for education. (While the state Education Department was essentially held flat for next fiscal year, the student population keeps growing.)

Rick Cobb, superintendent of Mid-Del Schools, said that especially in large school districts, the amount of time and effort that goes into complying with the Reading Sufficiency Act is substantial, and committee members often meet in the summer.

“It’s a year-round monitoring process for us,” he said. “In a large district, it takes a lot of time and effort. Added staff. Constant testing … tutoring time. It all costs money.”

Students have already been placed in grade levels for next year and staffing decisions were made accordingly. Yet school districts won’t find out the results of the third-grade reading test until at least July because along with the new standards came new tests. That is adding uncertainty to next school year, Cobb said.

The pass-fail test portion of the reading act went into effect in 2014. Lawmakers, particularly former educators, fought to soften the hard hammer of retention with the addition of the parent-teacher groups. The groups were added in a temporary basis in 2014 after an override of Gov. Mary Fallin’s veto but were set to dissolve at the close of the 2017-18 school year.