For First Time, ‘Read or Fail’ Law Is Fully Funded. Will It Reduce Retentions?

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Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch

A student combs through a tub of books at the Okmulgee Primary School library in December 2018.

One of the state’s most contentious education initiatives, the Reading Sufficiency Act, is fully funded for the first time, with $12 million dedicated to fund supports for struggling readers in the 2019-20 school year.

The reading law has for six years contained a high-stakes component for third graders: They face being held back if they can’t demonstrate reading proficiency.

Oklahoma Watch in December revealed that it’s not just third graders being retained, but students as young as kindergarten are repeating a grade more frequently in Oklahoma than in every other state except Mississippi. One of the major reasons is to give students more time to learn to read before the reading act’s high-stakes test in third grade, school administrators and parents say.

The increase of $5.5 million allocated to the Reading Sufficiency Act in the fiscal 2020 education budget is being heralded as a win by both state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister and Gov. Kevin Stitt.

What does the funding mean for Oklahoma students? Here are some answers.

How much funding will schools receive this year and how are the funds distributed?

Funds through the Reading Sufficiency Act are allocated per student who is in kindergarten through third grade and is reading below grade level. When the reading act was approved, the Legislature’s intent was to give schools about $150 per struggling reader. But each year the actual amount has been about $75 per student. This year, schools will receive about $153 per student.

What can those funds be spent on?

Districts can spend the funding on items like salaries for teachers and teaching assistants; before-, after- and summer school programs; instructional materials for reading instruction; screening assessments; and professional development for teachers, paraprofessionals and reading interventionists. Individual districts can choose which approaches to take. A survey of teachers found the five most effective supports are reduced student-teacher ratio, a daily reading block, intervention reading program, additional in-school instructional time and intensive language and vocabulary instruction.

Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

Bound, paper books remain a key tool in teaching a love of reading in early grades, as this row of books at Ketchum Elementary School in northeastern Oklahoma suggests.

How many students and schools are affected?

Nearly every district receives at least some reading act funds. In 2018, there were 77,677 students across the state who qualified for funding for lack of reading proficiency at the beginning of the school year; that was nearly 40% of students in kindergarten through third grade. The percentage has remained about the same since 2014, when retention in third grade was implemented as part of the reading act.

What will the influx of funding mean for students?

Ideally, better readers and fewer students retained. The number of third graders retained in 2018 increased slightly over 2017 — from 1,460 to 1,591, according to the state Education Department. That’s about 3% of all third graders. Oklahoma students’ reading scores have declined, according to the 2017 Nation’s Report Card, a national assessment given every other year to a sampling of students nationwide. That year, Oklahoma ranked 39th among states in fourth-grade reading, and 40th in eighth-grade reading.

“We have so many students that need help,” said Nancy Williams, a reading interventionist in Idabel, a district that received about $9,500 under the act in 2018. “If we get twice that, we can do twice the good.”