Retention law looms for Oklahoma elementary school students

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, third-graders who do not pass the state-mandated reading test will be retained.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL ccoppernoll@opubco.com Published: January 27, 2013

More than 1 in 3 Oklahoma third-graders aren't reading as well as they should be, and more than 1 in 10 are at least two years behind.

Next year, many students who fall into that bottom group will be required by law to repeat the third grade.

“Third grade is like a stop sign,” said Teri Brecheen, executive director of literacy for the state Education Department. “This really is about kindergarten, first and second grades.”

State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi announced this week she plans to ask state lawmakers for an extra $37.7 million for education that could be spent immediately.

That request includes $6.5 million to help school districts meet the Reading Sufficiency Act, the 2011 state law that requires school districts to identify children who are significantly behind, contact their parents and work to fix the problem. Children who can't catch up have to spend another year in third grade.

Money would be parceled out to school districts, which would have to use at least part of it on summer reading programs, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department said.

Barresi is set to make her request Tuesday to the House and Senate Appropriations Committee.

Educators statewide already are preparing for the law to go into effect, Brecheen said. A renewed focus on literacy — especially for younger children — means more students will receive intervention, instead of being pushed through the system.

“I can't imagine anything worse in life to someone's self-esteem than not being able to read,” Brecheen said.

Reading for meaning

Kristin Whitmore loves the challenge of teaching third-graders.

“I just love the demeanor,” Whitmore said. “They're coming into their sense of humor.”

Whitmore, who has taught for 10 years, has a colorful, chilly classroom upstairs at Sequoyah Elementary School in northwest Oklahoma City.

A poster on one wall is covered with stickers — a bunch of green for students who are reading on grade level, one yellow for a student who's slightly behind and four reds for kids who are significantly behind.

“In kindergarten, first and second grade, they are learning to read,” Whitmore said. “When they get to third grade, we are reading to learn.”

Reading fits into everything.

For example, math word problems are more complex. Writing is more demanding. Putting things in order for a story is like putting things in order for a science experiment.

“If they're unable to decode phonetically, their spelling is going to be bad,” she said.

Third-graders are reading chapter books, Whitmore said.

They read aloud in front of the class, and Whitmore also works with them in small groups on specific skills, like phonics. They can read about 77 words per minute. Now, they're talking about alliteration and adjectives.

They work on comprehension, she said. They learn to identify the beginning, middle and end of a story, so they can then use those same organization skills when they write stories of their own.

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