Among thousands of Oklahoma students who could be held back in third grade for failing a state reading test next year, a disproportionate share likely will be low-income children, an Oklahoma Watch analysis of state data found.
An analysis of state test data from spring 2012 found that elementary schools with higher rates of low-income students had greater shares of third-graders who scored poorly on the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test for reading.
Starting in spring 2014, under the Reading Sufficiency Act, third-graders who score at the lowest level on the test, unsatisfactory, will have to repeat third grade unless they get an exemption or improve to grade level by the fall.
The possibility that many of the students held back will come from low-income families raises fears among some educators that these children in particular will suffer negative effects from retention. Research over decades has found that retention can cause harmful lasting effects, including lagging achievement, higher dropout rates and social and emotional problems. Poor students are less likely to have support resources at home to recover, some experts say.
The Reading Sufficiency Act is intended to help more children read earlier, to advance from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” by fourth grade.
Supporters say the retention mandate will push schools to get their low performers up to speed and stop social promotion, in which students are moved up without mastering skills.
Statewide, 5,375 third-graders, or 11 percent, scored last spring at the lowest level on the reading exam, according to state data.
In the largest district, Oklahoma City Public Schools, 22 percent scored at the bottom; in Tulsa Public Schools, 25 percent did. More than four-fifths of students in both districts are low-income.
Tulsa-area principal Angie Teas is especially worried. Nearly 40 percent of her third-grade students would have flunked last year if Oklahoma's read-or-fail law had been in effect.
Teas, the principal of Mark Twain Elementary School in Sand Springs, can count on one hand the number of third-graders retained during her seven-year career as a principal.
Last spring, 25 of her third-graders scored unsatisfactory on the statewide reading test.
Like many schools, Mark Twain has stepped up efforts to get its struggling students to read better before the law's ultimatum kicks in. But Teas remains concerned. About 15 percent of this year's second-graders are at risk of failing in 2014. Nearly all of Mark Twain's students are from low-income families, which could magnify any negative effects from retention, she said.
“We have students with parents in jail, students who are in the shelter down the street,” Teas said. To those children, “who cares about reading and math if those things are going on?” Teas said.
Educators agree that Oklahoma students need to improve on reading. That's reflected in results on the “Nation's Report Card,” or National Assessment of Educational Progress, tests given to a sampling of usually fourth- and eighth-grade students nationally.
Since 2002, the state's fourth-graders have consistently scored lower than the national average on NAEP reading tests.
Low-income students performed worse. In 2011, 45 percent of low-income students in Oklahoma scored below the basic level on NAEP reading, compared with 36 percent of all students. Similar gaps existed between whites and minorities.
A pivotal factor in helping all students, experts say, is providing enough intervention so they can rebound academically and, in the best case, quickly return to their normal grade level. At the school level, that comes down to money. In Oklahoma, lawmakers and educators debate whether the Reading Sufficiency Act has enough.
The reading law
Oklahoma's reading act was passed in the 1990s mainly to provide funding to help first- and third-grade students improve reading skills. In 2011, after heated debate, lawmakers added test-based promotion.
The law requires school districts to assess children's reading levels in kindergarten; each school must submit reading plans on how to improve strugglers' skills.
Starting in 2014, third-graders who score “unsatisfactory” on the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test for reading will be held back unless they are given an exemption. Exemptions include having limited English proficiency, passing state-approved alternative assessment tests or providing a teacher's documentation proving the child has adequate reading skills.
Students who complete a summer reading program also are eligible for promotion, at the teacher's discretion. Retained students can be promoted midyear if they pass a state-approved assessment test or develop a reading portfolio to prove their ability to read at grade level.
Oklahoma Department of Education officials say the reading act is designed to help schools improve most students' skills regardless of reading habits at home or attendance problems.
Tricia Pemberton, spokeswoman for the Education Department, said some schools with many low-income students score well on state reading tests.
“(These schools) are doing it with the same amount of funding, no more or no less funding,” Pemberton said. “They can do it.”
Oklahoma's reading law is modeled off a Florida read-or-fail law enacted in 2002. The law has been touted as the reason for the state's academic gains.
Since 2002, average fourth-grade reading scores in Florida on the Nation's Report Card have jumped by 11 points and are 5 points above the national average. Minority and low-income students made significant improvements.
The results speak to Florida's efforts to help struggling kids and hold back the children that need more time, said Mary Laura Bragg, who a decade ago headed then-Gov. Jeb Bush's reading office and helped craft the reading law.
After Florida's law took effect, the number of retained third-graders soared by more than 300 percent, to 23,166, according to state education data. The number has fallen since, but the state still holds back more students than it did before the law was passed.
Researchers are still scrutinizing the effects.
Nation's Report Card data show that while Florida's fourth-grade reading scores climbed, those for eighth-grade students have improved only slightly. Eighth-grade reading scores remain just below or above the national average.
A 2012 Harvard University study found that achievement by retained Florida students rose in the short term but was statistically insignificant after six years.
Shane Jimerson, a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara who researches retention, said holding students back produces a short-term boost in productivity but is a long-term detriment. Retained children can suffer social problems because they reach puberty earlier than classmates and can feel stigmatized.
“Having a law with a retention mandate is akin to education malpractice,” Jimerson said.
Teas, the Mark Twain principal, said she has seen firsthand the negative impact that retention can have on a child. Her son, Zach Teas, was held back in the second grade.
During his first year in second grade, Zach was put through tutoring and after-school programs and had a support system at home encouraging him to read, Angie Teas said. In the end, she decided to hold him back.
Even now, her eyes water and her voice grows heavy when she talks about the decision, which Zach's educators supported. She thinks the retention played a large part in Zach's not having motivation later in school. He graduated from an alternative high school and did not attend college. He now works at a call center.
Zach, 21, of Tulsa, said he takes responsibility for his education path. He wants to pursue a career related to video games.
“It isn't something you wish on your children,” Angie Teas said about her son not attending college. “You want them to live up to their full potential.”