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.
For some students, reading is difficult. Tests reveal what skills a student lacks.
But test data does not tell the whole story. Whitmore can tell when students are struggling. They may have trouble focusing. They may choose books to read that are too easy. They repeatedly don't want to read in front of others.
“I pretty much have knowledge within the first week,” she said.
Does he need to be tested for special education? Does she need services as an English language learner? Or is the child simply behind?
Whatever the reason, intervention is necessary for students to catch up, Whitmore said.
A team of educators identifies ways to help. Maybe he needs to practice phonics. Maybe she needs work on identifying the main theme of a story. Intersession classes during breaks may help. Or she might just need more practice reading.
“It's more valuable when we are specific,” Whitmore said.
In Oklahoma City Public Schools, intervention is shifting to even younger grades, said Natalie Johnson-Papageorge, associate director of elementary education and reform.
“We know when students cannot read, they have difficulty in content areas across the board,” Johnson-Papageorge said. “It's up to us as educators.”
Students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade can benefit from options such as tutoring, intersession classes, small groups and volunteer mentoring, she said.
As reading improves, other areas do, as well.
“Accountability is at an all-time high,” Johnson-Papageorge said. “When they can read on level, they're going to be more successful in math, science, social studies, activities.”
Sometimes, even the most thorough interventions won't give students what they need: extra time.
The decision to retain a student will be made by the child's teacher and the school principal, but educators communicate with parents throughout the year if there is a possibility a student may not be promoted.
The district has an appeals process for students who are retained, Johnson-Papageorge said.
The state Education Department does not keep statistics about student retention.
The law does allow for exceptions, such as students who speak English as a second language or who have disabilities. Students who are unable to take tests can submit a portfolio of class work that proves they are capable of reading. And children who don't pass the test the first time around can try again with a different exam.
The decision to retain can't be made lightly, said Whitmore, the third-grade teacher. It's a lengthy process that should involve lots of communication with parents.
For some students, spending another year in third grade could be crushing. For others, it can build confidence as they catch up to their peers.
With so much at stake, Whitmore said, teachers must focus on helping students succeed.
“Something has to be done,” she said. “We can't just push them on through.”