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Changes Coming for 3rd Grade Reading Test

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Emily Wendler
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Third grade teacher, Amanda Neely, working with students at Creek Elementary in Mustang.

One way or another, the third grade reading test will be different next school year. The reading committees that lessen the high-stakes nature of the test are slated to dissolve at the end of this school year. But there's a bill in the legislature that could extend them for another three years. However, with that bill comes further changes to the test.

Under Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act, the third-grade reading test is a high-stakes test. Meaning, if students don’t do well, they could be held back.

As the law was originally written, students that scored an “Unsatisfactory”—the lowest score—would be held back unless they qualified for an exemption. There are exemptions for students that are English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and students that demonstrate sufficient reading skills on an alternative test, or in a portfolio of work.

In other words, if a student scored “Unsatisfactory” and did not qualify for an exemption, they automatically failed the third grade.

This worried a lot of educators.

Amanda Neely, a third grade teacher at Creek Elementary in Mustang, thought the idea was unfair.

“We’re basing these numbers and these decisions off of one test. We’re not accounting for the actual child, we’re accounting for how they performed that one day on that one test,” she said.

The Legislature took heed, and passed a bill that allowed schools to create review teams for kids that scored poorly on the test. These teams, made up of parents and teachers, could decide whether the child was ready to move on based on other observations.

The RSA law has been in effect for two years, and the reading teams have been in place for both of those years as well. However, these teams are set to dissolve at the end of this school year, bringing students back to the controversial, make-or-break test.

And again, educators are riled up about it.

Neely said the reading team is essential to student’s success.

“Having that team in place is a good advocate for those kids because they are people that have worked with them [the students] throughout the year, who know them.”

She also worries that basing a decision to hold a child back based on one test could affect them emotionally.

“You know, what are we doing to their confidence? What are we doing to their self-esteem when we’re basing this off of one test?,” she said.

The principal at Creek Elementary, Susan Dombek, said the test already puts a lot of stress on students and parents. And she worries that the stress will get worse without these committees.  

“I have a parent that’s emailed me numerous times, with the child’s stress, you know stomach issues and things like that, just because they’re worried about that one test.”

Dombek also worries that the number of students being held back will increase, causing third grade class sizes to swell.

“That’s looking at a whole ‘nother class,” she said, “A whole ‘nother group of third graders.”

When Governor Fallin signed the Reading Sufficiency Act, she said the idea was not to punish students, but rather to help them. She said if students can’t read at grade-level, then they will struggle with more complicated subjects later on.

She originally vetoed the bill that created the reading committees, saying teachers and parents would pass students on despite their low skill level, and that was a disservice to them. The legislature over rode her veto and the committees were set to last two years, ending with this one.

However, there is a bill currently pending in the legislature that would extend the committees another three years. But there’s a catch.

Senator John Ford, the bill’s author, wants to raise the bar for students.

“We are increasing the threshold from “Limited Knowledge” to “Proficient” because children need to read at grade level,” he said.

If Senate Bill 630 passes, students that score “Unsatisfactory” and “Limited Knowledge”—the two lowest categories on the test—would be at risk for retention. This would nearly double the number of students at risk for failing the third grade.

Senator Ford said this new bar they’re setting is the one children really need to reach. He said students that score “Unsatisfactory” are reading at a first-grade level, and “Limited Knowledge” are at a second grade level. And “Proficient” is where kids need to be.

He said extending the committee for three years will give students and teachers time to adjust to the new requirements.

Over the two years that the law has been in effect, the statewide results have shown a slight improvement. In 2014, 16.2 percent of third graders – or 7,861 students—scored “Unsatisfactory” putting them at risk of retention. This year, that number was down to 14.6 percent, or 7,311 students.

The state’s two largest school districts, Tulsa Public Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools, saw more significant improvements. Last year, 35 percent of Tulsa Public School’s third graders scored “Unsatisfactory” and this year only 30 percent did.

At Oklahoma City Public Schools, 16 percent scored “Unsatisfactory” this year, compared to 29 percent last year.  

This year’s numbers are still preliminary, and could change as reading committees promote students, or they qualify for other exemptions.

Alex Weintz, the communications director for Governor Fallin, said the governor is open to additional changes to the Reading Sufficiency Act –including those proposed in SB 630 – provided they support the goal of ensuring that every third grader can read at grade appropriate level. 

Emily Wendler was KOSU's education reporter from 2015 to 2019.
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