If Florida’s use of a read-or-fail law for third graders is any indication, many Oklahoma students who fail the state’s reading exam in April will win exemptions and go on to fourth grade.

An Oklahoma State Department of Education spokeswoman said the agency expects up to 50 percent of students who score at the lowest level on the test will receive “good-cause” exemptions. Between 5,000 and 6,000 third graders are at risk of failing the test, based on previous years’ results.

Florida implemented its reading retention law in 2002-2003, requiring third graders to pass a standardized reading exam or in some other way show they can read well enough to move on to fourth grade. Oklahoma’s mandate kicks in this spring.

The goal of the law is to push schools and parents to focus on getting students to read well enough by third grade so they can master other subjects going forward. Many educators object to mandated retention based on a test, saying it can impede learning  and social adjustment.

In 2002-2003, about 43,000 Florida third graders, or 23 percent, scored low enough on the reading test to be eligible to be retained. However, 10 percent of all third graders were given an exemption that let them advance to fourth grade. So in the end, 13 percent of all third graders were held back.

In Oklahoma, more than 6,000 third graders, or about 12 percent, scored unsatisfactory, the lowest of four levels, on the reading test in spring 2013. It was 11 percent in 2012.

There are six exemptions for students who fail the test. Some students, such as English language learners or those in special education, may automatically qualify for an exemption. In other cases, teachers, principals and superintendents will review a student’s portfolio and make a judgment call on whether a student’s coursework shows they’re proficient enough at reading to enter fourth grade. Many teachers are drawing up portfolios for students in case they do poorly on the reading test.

“We believe a good number – maybe up to 50 percent – will get a good-cause exemption,” said Tricia Pemberton, spokeswoman for the state education department.

Pemberton said the agency expects to see similar growth in reading proficiency that Florida saw, as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Some experts have attributed that improvement more to reading intervention provided by Florida than to the retention mandate.

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.

Even with the more rigorous tests, a lower percentage of students were held back in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 compared with the first year the standards were implemented.

How Florida Students Fared

Here’s how Florida third graders have done on its standardized reading test, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. The percentages represents shares of all third graders.

School Year
3rd graders who failed reading test3rd graders retainedTotal 3rd graders
* State implemented more rigorous test

Note: The home-page photo for this story is from the U.S. Department of Education and is being used as an iconic image by Oklahoma Watch.

Nate Robson can be reached at nrobson@oklahomawatch.org

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