By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer
Irving Elementary School third-grade teacher Ramelle Roberts knows how things change when kids reach her class.
“In third grade, you make the transition from simply reading to comprehending what you read,” Roberts said. “It’s a very hard year. The first years of school are when we hit phonics hard and phonemic awareness hard. In third grade, you’ve got to read, and you’ve got to understand what you read.”
In third grade, students build their vocabulary and must read with more fluency, Roberts said. In third grade, the state of Oklahoma starts testing students on their ability to read.
Within three years, Oklahoma third-graders will face an even greater reading challenge. Under a new state law, students who do not read at grade level at the end of the third grade cannot move on to fourth grade. The new law, SB 346, says schools must focus on intervention and remediation in earlier grades so students won’t have to be held back.
“This reform is not about hitting the panic button in the third grade. It’s about helping children succeed,” said State Superintendent for Public Instruction Janet Barresi. “Once they move into fourth grade, they stop learning to read and start reading to learn.”
The state law will not affect this year’s third-graders, or next year’s. Under the law, students entering third grade in the 2013-2014 school year — this year’s first-graders — must read at third-grade level. Those third-graders who score at the “unsatisfactory” level on the state test are to be retained in the third grade, though the law allows for exceptions.
Unsatisfactory is the lowest of four levels on the state reading test, said Peggy Jones, Muskogee Public Schools curriculum and instruction director. The levels are:
• Unsatisfactory, 400 to 648 points.
• Limited knowledge, 649 to 699 points.
• Proficient, 700 to 890 points.
• Advanced, 891 to 990 points.
Barresi said children make an “important shift in learning after the third grade.”
“This is the grade when they really fall behind,” Barresi said. “If you can’t read, you can’t do math, you can’t learn social studies, you can’t learn science.”
The law says schools must establish a Reading Enhancement and Acceleration Development (READ) Initiative this school year. The READ Initiative would focus on students in third grade and below who are showing reading deficiencies. The initiative also would offer accelerated reading instruction to third-graders who did not advance to the fourth grade.
“What we are doing is setting up clear-cut guidelines,” Barresi said.
Specifications include helping reading-deficient students read at grade level, providing scientifically based and reliable assessment, providing initial and ongoing analysis on student progress, providing skill development in five elements of reading instruction.
“Schools will develop their own programs by following state guidelines,” said Teri Brecheen, executive director for literacy for the Oklahoma Department of Education.
Jones said Muskogee schools are working to address the concerns raised by SB 346.
“We’re in the process of forming a literacy framework,” Jones said. “We meet with students who need help, provide tutoring, provide intervention.”
Jones said Muskogee put together an instructional leadership team made up of former MPS principals Cheryll Hallum and Clevetta Haynes, other principals, MPS professional development director Melony Carey and MPS reading and assessment director Joyce Weston.
In 2011, 52 Muskogee Public Schools third-graders scored unsatisfactory on last spring’s reading test, Jones said. That’s 12 percent of the 416 third-graders who took the test.
Muskogee schools incorporate Literacy First, a program designed to accelerate reading achievement in all grades. In early grades, Literacy First teachers follow a structured daily plan that includes two hours of reading instruction and 20 minutes of independent reading.
“In Literacy First, we have teaching stations,” Roberts said. “I have small groups of five or six — just the six kids and you and the rest of the class works on different skills.”
Roberts said she works with the small groups to improve areas of reading weakness. Some might struggle with vocabulary, others might need help with comprehension.
She also works one-on-one with students, formally and informally. When one student struggled with a spelling word, Roberts reminded her “remember when we were walking in the playground and talked about how the word was spelled.”
Roberts, who has taught at MPS for 20 years, said she has several ways to tell if a student is struggling with reading. Testing is one of them.
“When you have a lot of experience, you listen to them read. You can tell who needs more intervention,” she said.
Hilldale assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Faye Garrison said she does not expect the state’s new READ Initiative to change things at Hilldale.
“It’s kind of redundant,” Garrison said. “It requires us to teach all that we’ve been doing.
Garrison said she is worried about the law’s prohibition of social promotion.
“I’m all for retaining students, if you do it at every age, and if you do it with some differences,” she said, “not only cognitive abilities, but social-emotional development, you look at the entire child.”
In the spring 2011 state test, four out of 140 Hilldale third-graders, 2.8 percent, received an unsatisfactory score on the reading test.
“We have two or three times during the day we do reading intervention,” Garrison said.
Hilldale has reading specialists who work with each grade level.
“In first, second and third grades, they’re in the classrooms every day working with students,” Garrison said. “In fourth and fifth grades, they pull students out and work with them for 20 to 30 minutes.”
Oklahoma’s READ Initiative was patterned after a Florida program with the same name. Florida’s READ Initiative was designed to prevent retention of third-graders and to offer intensive reading instruction for students in lower grades identified with a reading deficiency as well as for retained third-graders.
State Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, said he opposed the bill because he was concerned about holding a student back for not scoring well on a test.
“If you hold a kid back, it increases the probability he’ll drop out in the eighth or ninth grade,” said Garrison, Faye Garrison’s husband.
The senator also questioned basing Oklahoma’s READ initiative on Florida’s program. He said Florida has high dropout rates and lower ACT test scores than Oklahoma’s.
In 2011, Florida students had a composite ACT score of 19.6, compared to Oklahoma’s 20.7 composite score. Both were below the national composite ACT score of 21.1.
State Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, a co-sponsor of SB 346, defended the measure.
“If we shove them through the educational pipeline when they area not ready, we doom them to failure,” Jolley said. “Put emphasis on reading in the lower levels, make sure they are reading at grade level at third grade and start remediation.
He said the new law encourages schools to implement a plan and “and to get parents involved in planning.”
Jolley said students drop out of high school out of boredom, lack of challenge, or because “they cannot operate on grade level.
“If you hold a kid back so they’re better prepared academically, they’re less likely to drop out later,” Jolley said.
Reach Cathy Spaulding at (918) 684-2928 or cspaulding@muskogee phoenix.com.