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.”