IN its new Kids Count data snapshot, the Annie E. Casey Foundation says 79 percent of low-income Oklahoma fourth-graders aren’t reading proficiently, based on National Assessment of Educational Progress data. The problem isn’t limited to the poor. The foundation reports 57 percent of higher-income Oklahoma fourth-graders also aren’t proficient in reading.
These findings justify alarm. As the foundation report notes, “If we do not make sure all children gain the needed reading skills to be successful in school, their future educational and economic prospects will be dim, and our economy will lag.”
Oklahoma policymakers are aggressively addressing this problem. A state law taking effect this year requires retention of third-grade students who are several years behind in reading proficiency. While the retention aspect has gained the most publicity, the initiative also requires increased intervention in early grades so children repeat a grade only as a last resort.
Under the law, early literacy screenings occur from kindergarten through third grade. Parents of any child identified with a reading deficiency must be notified; individualized reading plans must then be developed and implemented. To be retained, a student must be reading far below grade level.
Only those who score “unsatisfactory” on state tests will be retained. That score indicates a third-grade student is reading at about a first-grade level or below. There are also several exemptions, including for special education students or those learning English as a second language.
Even so, too many students will fall short. If the retention law had taken effect last year, an estimated 12 percent of Oklahoma third-graders might have been retained, although perhaps half would have qualified for an exemption. Without doubt, 6 percent of 50,000 third-graders is still a sizable figure. But given that the Casey Foundation reports 70 percent of all Oklahoma fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading, it’s clear the new retention law is narrowly tailored. Students who repeat a grade will clearly be those with the greatest need.
Yet some critics still argue retention is so stigmatizing that students become more likely to drop out of school than socially promoted peers. Research indicates otherwise. A Manhattan Institute study of a similar Florida law found that after two years, socially promoted students appeared to fall further behind; retained students were able to catch up and succeed in later grades.
A follow-up study by Marcus Winters found that retained students were still outperforming socially promoted peers in reading and math as late as seventh grade. One reason for the results: Florida requires retained students to get additional intensive interventions, just as Oklahoma now does. Children won’t simply repeat a grade. They’ll repeat a grade and get far more reading instruction.
The long-term benefit of the new law could be dramatic. It’s estimated that students who can’t read by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Critics’ claims notwithstanding, allowing a child who reads at a first-grade level to advance to the fourth grade, and then simply hoping for the best, is a poor strategy.
Education is crucial to a child’s future success. With its new third-grade reading law, Oklahoma is backing those words with meaningful action.