The number of third graders meeting minimum reading benchmarks has continued to tick upward in the three years since Oklahoma tied reading scores to advancement to the fourth grade, preliminary results from the state Department of Education show.

That raises the question of whether the controversial high-stakes exam is working by forcing schools and parents to ensure more third graders read better. The goal of the approach, which is used in other states, is to push students from a “learn to read” to a “read to learn” level by fourth grade.

Whether the testing itself make a difference remains unclear. Oklahoma Watch talked to a state Department of Education official and two educators about their view on what is nudging up the scores.

First, the results:

Statewide, 88 percent of students qualified for automatic promotion to the fourth grade, leaving 12 percent at risk of being held back unless they qualify for an exemption. That compares to 14.6 percent of students who did not pass the exam in 2015 and 16.3 percent who failed to pass in 2014.

Final results will likely show an increase in the rate of advancement to fourth grade because Oklahoma law allows students who didn’t pass to receive a probationary promotion if recommended by a team of parents, teachers and a certified reading specialist.

Phil Bacharach
Senior policy advisor, Department of Education

Bacharach said the improved scores indicate the reading retention policy is working. Also, more remediation programs and an emphasis on early literacy education are likely contributing.

He pointed to another test as evidence the state’s efforts are working: fourth graders improved reading proficiency by 3 percentage points on the 2015 National Assessment for Educational Progress.

“Early literacy is so vital for any sort of academic progress, and setting a foundation for everything else that comes afterward,” Bacharach said.

He added that one of Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s top priorities is early literacy. While much focus is now on third grade, the test is intended to be a backstop and a reflection of important reading skills students should have learned in earlier grades, he said.

John Cox
President, Organization of Rural Elementary Schools

Cox said scores are improving not because of the pass-or-repeat nature of the test, which he believes places too much pressure on 8-year-olds, but because teachers have placed more focus on developing students’ reading skills.

“Our teachers are doing a great job with kids,” he said. “They deserve the credit.”

It’s not just third grade teachers, either, he added. Educators start building a foundation for reading in pre-K and kindergarten.

Alicia Priest
President, Oklahoma Education Association

The real story behind the reading improvements, Priest said, is the funding tied to the Reading Sufficiency Act, a state law enacted in 1997 to improve children’s reading skills by the end of third grade. A provision to hold back students who fail to meet grade-level standards was added in the 2013-14 school year.

Intensive resources have been put into early childhood literacy, and special attention was placed on second grade last year, she said. Funds pay for reading specialists, tutoring and professional development.

On Friday, the state Board of Education approved cutting funding for these programs by 30 percent, to $4.5 million, as part of a $38.2 million reduction in the public school activities fund.

“What we should focus on is having the resources available to give teachers and students what they need to be successful,” Priest said.

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Jennifer Palmer

Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 325-2084 or Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC