Nearly 8,000 Third Graders Fail Reading Exam and Face Possible Retention

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Source: Oklahoma State Department of Education

Any hopes that Oklahoma third graders would see improvements in reading proficiency this year were dashed Friday after results from the state reading test showed 7,970 students failed the exam and are at risk of being retained.

Preliminary data from the State Department of Education shows 15.7 percent of third graders scored unsatisfactory, the lowest of four levels, on the reading portion of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test. That compares with 11.4 percent last year and is the highest failure rate in past five years.

Officials attribute part of the increase to more special education students taking the Core Curriculum Test this year.

Here’s a breakdown of how third graders scored this spring on the state reading exam. The numbers are preliminary.

Score Number of Students Percent
Advanced 1,120 2.2%
Proficient 32,531 63.9%
Limited Knowledge 7,070 13.9%
Unsatisfactory 7,970 15.7%

Note: A number of third graders did not take the test. That number is included in the total test takers used by state education officials to calculate percentages for each scoring level.

Students who scored at the bottom level of reading will have to repeat third grade unless they qualify for one of six exemptions or pass an alternative test, such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or unless the House passes a bill that also allows students to advance with approval of a team of educators and the parents or guardians.

This is the first class of third graders to face mandatory retention if they score poorly on the reading exam.

The results from the test show many students in the state’s largest districts, Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools, struggled on the exam. In Oklahoma City, 1,042 students, or 28.9 percent, scored unsatisfactory, and in Tulsa, 1,125 students, or 32.7 percent, scored at that level.

Both districts have high rates of students from low-income families. Previous reporting by Oklahoma Watch showed students in poverty were most at risk of being retained under the Reading Sufficiency Act.

Parents in many districts will find out next week if their children are at risk of being retained.

The exact number of students retained won’t be known until later this summer, but state officials have said they expect about half will earn an exemption.

“We want to reassure these students and their families that we will do everything possible to support the efforts to ensure they can read on grade level so they can have the earliest chance of promotion,” State Superintendent Janet Barresi said in a written statement.

“An individual who isn’t given the opportunity to learn how to read is denied an opportunity to be a fully contributing citizen.”

Oklahoma Education Association President Linda Hampton was critical of the state education department for releasing district-level results before parents were notified. She also said the state has failed to provide enough funds for reading programs and tutoring to help struggling students succeed.

“Superintendent Barresi can try to pass the third-grade reading retention based on the reading test as good policy, but to educators, the bottom line is we are leaving students behind and that is unacceptable,” Hampton said in a written statement. “Our schools have put all efforts into meeting these recent mandated reforms, yet education funding has constantly been cut. Something has got to change.”

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard also criticized the state education department for its handling of the release of data.

The timing meant the media had access to preliminary results before districts, administrators or parents did.

“This was extremely disrespectful to our 9-year-old students and their parents, not to mention our teachers,” Ballard said in a letter addressed to parents Friday.

The statewide results come despite concerted efforts to improve reading proficiency during the past few years.

In 2008-2009, 6,698 students, or 14.1 percent, scored unsatisfactory. Nearly 6,018 students, or 12.1 percent, of third-graders scored unsatisfactory in 2012-2013.

One factor in this year’s higher failure rate could be that about 3,000 more special education students took the state’s reading test this year, according to state education department officials. In previous years, those students took an alternative assessment.
Statewide, 3,376 of Oklahoma’s special education students, or 41 percent, scored at the lowest level.

It was not immediately clear how that compared with previous years.

In Norman Public Schools, about 15 percent of the districts 1,119 third graders scored low enough to be subject to retention, up from 6.7 percent last year.

The district attributed the increase to more special education students taking the exam.
Nearly 65 percent of the students who scored at the lowest level on the exam are in special education or do not speak English as a primary language.

The goal of Oklahoma’s retention law is to ensure students read well enough by third grade so they can master subjects moving forward. Opponents of mandatory retention say it can impede learning and social adjustment.

Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, said the state cannot continue to socially promote students who can’t read.

Students who enter fourth grade unable to read will be unable to keep up in class, and will continue to fall further behind. Those students will then graduate unprepared for college and the workplace, or they will drop out of school.

“It’s not a punishment,” Weintz said of retention. “It’s just an extra step so they can read and succeed in later grades.”

Amber England, government affairs director for Stand for Children Oklahoma, which advocates for school reforms, said Friday’s results are not surprising and highlight the need to change the existing law.

Stand for Children Oklahoma and other state education groups are expected to gather at the Capitol Monday to urge lawmakers to pass HB 2626, which would create a panel of teachers, parents and reading specialists at each school or district who will determine whether a third grader should be held back or advanced to fourth grade.

The bill is supposed to be given a floor hearing Monday.

Even with current retention exemptions in place, England said the current reading requirement puts too much emphasis on the results of one test.

“For students who don’t get an exemption, it’s still one test on one day,” England said. “We think parents should be involved in this decision.”

Rep. Katie Henke, R-Tulsa, a co-author of the bill, tried to get the legislation heard Thursday in order to diminish the threat of retention before the release of this year’s test results.

Meredith Exline, president of the Oklahoma Central Parent Legislative Action Committee, said members of her advocacy group hope to send a strong message to Gov. Mary Fallin and Barresi by showing up to the Capitol for Monday’s expected vote.

Exline said the state needs to ensure that students can read before promoting them to upper grades, but added relying on test scores is not the best way to make decisions.

“Parents are important in this process,” Exline said. “For some reason, some people don’t see the value in having us involved in the process.”

Oklahoma’s read-or-fail law is based on a similar law implemented in Florida in 2002-2003.

In Florida, about 43,000 third-graders, or 23 percent, scored low enough on the state’s test to be retained in the first year. After exemptions were given to many students to advance to fourth grade, the retention rate ended up at 13 percent.

In Florida, the percentage of third grade students retained declined steadily over years until a more rigorous test was put in place in 2010-2011. The share of students reading at grade level has increased.

Oklahoma State Department of Education officials have said they expect to see similar trends in Oklahoma, with about half of failing third graders earning an exemption in the first year followed by an improvement in proficiency.


Starting Monday, state education officials will take calls from parents, community members and educators about the reading-test results. The hotlines will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, through May 23.

Parents, community members: (405) 521-3374.
School district personnel: (405) 521-3301.

Nate Robson can be reached at

  • Susan

    I knew going into this test that my daughter would not pass. She is on an IEP and has been from the beginning of her academic career. She has a learning disability and we have always known she was behind grade level – which is why we establish goals for her on the IEP, goals which she always accomplishes. Those goals were never stated as “must read at grade level” but instead were stated as the next step in the process to hopefully get her to grade level. I can tell you that nothing in the past couple of years has changed with her academics to try to get her to grade level with the exception of private tutoring and speech therapy that I pay for and basic classroom activities. The school system has not offered tutoring or summer school, or anything else in addition to her regular classroom activties and they have always known she was behind grade level. I’m assuming this is because of funding, or lack thereof. When this legislation was passed, funding was not put into increasing the effort to improve reading – at least I certainly never saw any additional effort. I am a very involved parent and have worked with my daughter continuously, including private tutoring, so please don’t blame this parent.

    Also, there is an assumption that kids with LDs on an IEP are exempted – wrong!

    The state has failed our children, and now they want to punish some of them for something out of our control.

  • Joe Eddins

    We do not know how to teach all children to be good readers by the 3rd grade. What we did this year was very bad for the 15,000 children in the lower score range. We humiliated them, their family, and their teachers. The legislature enacted the law. They need to repeal it.

    • This law needs to be rewritten! To retain a child, not to mention 1000’s of children is a disgrace to the child in the family! The child well lose his/her interest in school all together ! It well in fact, destroy his/her self-esteem!

  • Darci

    Instead of creating a panel who will judge the students academic progress or lack of it, let them step inside the classrooms and kindly sit with the children. They need more quality time reading and being read to. These children are precious and willing to learn. Many don’t have support from parents. Unfortunately it falls on the public school system to supply them with more support, not more people to judge them. Show the children they are worth the time and effort it takes to go the extra mile. They need you and they need me to help them. The consequences of not being able to read are too devastating to each child and society as a whole to not help Today. I volunteer in 2 public school classrooms each week. There is something each of us can do. Please.

  • This law and the others like them in the United States constitute nothing much short of child abuse. It’s out of sync with reality to think that someone can hold kids back in order to move them forward. Truthfully, you are punishing poor kids for being poor since 96% of achievement is correlated with family income. Let’s build libraries and buy kids books. Or, build more prisons–your call, Oklahoma. How sick/sad.

    Take a look at this common sense resolution passed in 2015 by the National Council of Teachers of English:

  • Kay

    This impacts many Hispanic and immigrant homes where English is the second language. Parents can not help the children read English. It is not uncommon for the children to eventually teach the parents English. This is true in many immigrant households.