By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer
Third-graders might have to stay in third grade next year if they get an unsatisfactory score on their reading tests this spring.
As the youngsters prepare for their tests to be administered in April, educators and legislators hope to ease what they call “high stakes testing” at such an early age.
“One test is not a fair determination of whether a child is reading on grade level,” said Hilldale Elementary third-grade teacher Amie Sheets. “You have no idea what had happened to the child the day before, yet everything is based on one day, one test, one time.”
A state law enacted in 2011 said students who do not read at grade level by the end of third grade cannot move on to fourth grade. This year’s third-graders are the first class to be affected by the law.
Such students would be those who score “unsatisfactory” on the annual state reading test. Unsatisfactory is the lowest of four levels on the state reading test. The four levels on the third-grade reading test are:
• Unsatisfactory, 400 to 653 points.
• Limited knowledge, 654 to 699.
• Proficient, 700 to 903.
• Advanced, above 903.
Sheets said she has not changed the way she teaches reading to her students, even as the prospect of retention looms.
However, she said her students and their parents have been nervous about how the law will affect them.
Lori Wright said her third-grade child at Hilldale “reads well.”
“But when you put a test like this in front of her, what kind of anxiety will she have,” Wright said.
Sheets had another concern.
“Children can be held back for up to two years,” Sheets said. “Some of these kids are going to be 20 years old when they are seniors, and I worry that the dropout rate is going to go through the roof.”
Hilldale Elementary Principal Kair Ridenhour said nine of the school’s 132 third-graders have been at risk of scoring unsatisfactory on the reading test.
Sheets, who has a child in kindergarten and one in first grade, said she not only is concerned as a teacher, but also “as a parent.”
“I’m seeing my first-grader do work that, when I started teaching, was done in the second grade,” Sheets said.
Fort Gibson Intermediate Elementary Principal Sherry Rybolt said the retention law could affect 19 of the school’s 110 third-graders. She said that while the initial intent of the Reading Sufficiency Act is good, the third-grade reading component must be modified.
“I have deep concern on the long-term impact of retaining students for up to two years,” Rybolt said. “The research on retention shows negative long-term impact on the student. Any initial gain seen from retention disappears within five or six years, according to the research.”
Hilldale Superintendent Dr. Kaylin Coody said she is concerned about how soon schools or parents could be notified if their third-graders are held back.
“If we are using state tests and we don’t get the test results, the students would be in the fourth grade before we retain them.”
State education officials defended the third-grade retention.
“We believe it is a good and valid rule,” said Tricia Pemberton, senior communication specialist with the Oklahoma Department of Education. “The only children who would be retained are those who score unsatisfactory and who do not meet the good-cause exemptions.”
The law allows for six good-cause exemptions for third-grade promotion. They include:
• Identified English Language Learner with less than two years of instruction in an ELL program.
• Students with disabilities assessed with alternate achievement standards.
• Students who show good performance on alternative reading tests approved by the state Department of Education.
• Students with a portfolio showing they are reading at or higher than grade level.
• Students with disabilities who take the OCCT test and have an individualized education plan.
• Students who have received intensive reading remediation for two or more years.
The law does not affect students who merely fail the reading test, or receive proficient or above, Pemberton said.
“If they score ‘limited knowledge,’ they move on,” Pemberton said. “If you score unsatisfactory on the third-grade test, you are reading on a first-grade level.”
Bills to ease parts of the third-grade retention law are flowing out of the Oklahoma Legislature.
A bill filed by State Rep. Jadine Nollan, R-Tulsa, would give teachers and parents more say on whether a child would be held back.
“If a child does not score proficient on the test, the teacher and parent can discuss whether the child would be retained or promoted,” Nollan said, adding that the decision is best made at the local level.
The legislation, Hous Bill 2773, said that starting with the 2015 school year, each district could establish an appeal process for students who do not meet academic requirements for promotion. The parent could file for an appeal, and the local board of education would act on the petition.
“The people in the trenches know best,” Nollan said. “Each child is unique. A child could be scoring at grade level in every other subject or maybe have a learning disability or maybe is just a slow reader.”
Nollan said her legislation would “create an appeals process based on the recommendation of the teachers and the parents.”
“We’re still making an effort to make sure the kid is learning,” she said, adding that the legislation “creates a higher degree of accountability.”
“I know our teachers are working very hard,” she said.
State Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, said he filed legislation, HB 2565, that he hopes would reset the clock until the act has proper funding.
In a media release sent Friday, Shelton said the legislation would give students more time to prepare before the law takes effect.
According to the media release, Shelton said some 40 percent of Oklahoma third-graders face not moving to the fourth grade.
Pemberton disputed the percentage, stating that 12 percent of Oklahoma third-graders scored unsatisfactory on the reading test.
State Rep. Ed Cannaday, D-Porum, also filed legislation proposing to delay a requirement to retain certain third-graders. The legislation also calls for the Department of Education to conduct a study of reading instruction and retention of students.
State Rep. Arthur Hulbert, R-Fort Gibson, proposed legislation to exempt students with individualized education programs from certain retention requirements.
Reach Cathy Spaulding at (918) 684-2928 or email@example.com.