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Retention law looms for Oklahoma elementary school students

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, third-graders who do not pass the state-mandated reading test will be retained.
BY CARRIE COPPERNOLL Published: January 27, 2013

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.”