IN 2011, state lawmakers voted to require third-graders to repeat a grade if they read at a first-grade level or lower. But with that mandate set to take effect this year, lawmakers buckled and reversed course, declaring “one test on one day” should not have such consequence.
But retention was never based on one test on one day, as new figures from school districts prove.
In the Oklahoma City school district, 998 students failed the state reading test. Sixty-seven were exempted from the retention mandate because they spoke English as a second language and had less than two years of English instruction. Another 67 were exempted because they were students with disabilities. Another 79 students passed an alternative reading test. One student passed by providing a portfolio demonstrating reading competency.
Also, another 118 children were exempt from retention because they were students with disabilities with an individualized education plan who had already been retained once. Another 10 students were exempted because they had previously been retained.
Thus, 342 students failed the test but were allowed to advance to the fourth grade anyway under exemptions in place since 2011. Clearly, the system already included substantial exemptions, and also alternative methods for a child to prove reading proficiency. Retention never hinged solely on the results of a single test.
It’s also worth noting that the reading law allowed a third-grade student to advance to the fourth grade even if that child was a year behind. There were 654 Oklahoma City students whose scores indicated they read at a second-grade level; those children were never subject to mandatory retention and have been promoted to fourth grade. Only functionally illiterate children were subject to possible mandatory retention.
Yet state lawmakers decided even more exemptions were needed. They added one that was far more subjective. Under a new law, children reading at a first-grade level or lower who fail to pass alternative tests, aren’t learning English as a second language and who don’t have learning disabilities can still be socially promoted. Such promotions require only the support of the child’s parents and a group of local school officials.
So far, Oklahoma City has used this “academic team” process to promote 139 failing students. It would be better if each district provided the specific criteria used to justify those decisions, but at least it appears Oklahoma City officials aren’t using the new law to automatically promote every student who fails the reading test. Just 27 percent of promotions for kids who failed the test in Oklahoma City are tied to the new, subjective standard.
Other schools appear to be more aggressively exploiting the loophole created by the new law. As many as 55 percent of Tulsa students who failed the reading test but may be promoted anyway owe that fact to the new “academic team” exemption, according to figures reported by the Tulsa World. In the Union school district, the subjective group-recommendation exemption accounted for 46 percent of promotions given students who failed the reading test.
The third-grade reading law has always included numerous exemptions. But if legislators aren’t willing to draw a hard and fast line somewhere, then why bother with the law at all? There’s no benefit to having a reading law on the books if it doesn’t mean children will actually be taught to read.