A close study of Oklahoma’s legislation concerning third graders, their reading, and high stakes testing reveals a narrative of sincere concern for literacy learning, some political opportunism, unintended consequences, inadequate funding, and serial tweaks to the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA).
First enacted in 1997, the Reading Sufficiency Act set forth the goal that all third graders would read at grade level. This was supported by the ‘learn to read; read to learn’ approach to teaching reading in lower grades, and teaching content through reading beginning in fourth grade. Third grade was seen as the crucial span to assure all students were reading at level. The Annie E. Casey publication, Early Warning: Why Reading by the Third Grade Matters is cited by Oklahoma reformers as well as reformers around the country.
A version of the RSA written and enacted in 2009 emphasized identification and support of struggling readers.
In 2011, perhaps with the guidance of the new State Superintendent of Schools, Janet Barresi, a “Chief for Change,” one of a number of state education chiefs working closely with Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence, RSA was changed to become high-stakes for third graders. As governor, Bush had pushed, not only for school grading scales based on test scores, he also led the push to make third grade reading tests high stakes, retaining any third grader not reading at level. The Florida laws had been on the books since 2003, and Oklahoma followed suit.
The Reading Sufficiency Act was amended in 2011 to include mandatory retention of any student scoring ‘unsatisfactory’ on the state’s third grade criterion-referenced reading/English Language Arts test.
In 2014, Representative Katie Henke, a former elementary public school teacher, amended the high-stakes law, now labeled HB 2625, to allow parents and educators to create teams to evaluate the testing and achievement information for all students who scored ‘Unsatisfactory’ on the OCCT, third-grade test. The bill passed both houses of the legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Mary Fallin, with the veto supported by Superintendent Barresi. In a dramatic afternoon showdown, with parents and teachers actively advocating for Representatives to override the veto, they did just that. The Oklahoma Senate quickly followed suit, and teams became the law, but they would phase out in 2015-2016 school year. At this point, the RSA was 16 pages of directives to schools and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
One huge difference between the Florida model legislation and practice, and Oklahoma’s legislation and practice was funding for the intensive remediation and instruction for young readers. Florida appropriated $130 million annually, while the Oklahoma legislature never earmarked more than $7.1 million, and has now been defunded.
In 2014-2015, educators began to look critically at the standardized test used to retain students. The Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT) is a criterion-referenced test, not designed to measure reading grade level equivalencies. And the test is a combined reading comprehension, vocabulary, English Language Arts test. 24 questions are reading skill questions, and 26 are ELA questions. Dr. Jason James, superintendent of Alex Public Schools was the first to point out the inequity of retaining third graders based on the total score of the OCCT, and the Oklahoma State Department of Education devised a method of extracting the reading comprehension questions from the total, and analyzing student scores on those questions. Even with other the availability of other measures to show reading proficiency, confidence in the system was shaken by the use of these few questions to determine students’ placement for the upcoming year.
In 2015, as confusion swirled around the testing methods, and the loss of the parent-teacher teams, another piece of the RSA was implemented. In order to continue the parent-teacher teams, educators and legislators agreed to raise the bar on test performance. With SB 630, students were required to score proficient on the 24 reading questions in order to be promoted. Now ‘Limited Knowledge’ was the threshold for moving on to fourth grade. SB 630 was 25 pages long. Each piece of legislation adds but never removes any requirements. Funding for remediation was gone, but requirements for third grade test takers was raised.
As evidence continued to be collected on the long-term achievement and success of students retained as third graders, results were mixed. Most states, Oklahoma included, stayed the course with high stakes.
Oklahoma continued to tweak the law, as Florida was taking a long look at the ramifications. Some reports hint that the state will end their test-based retentions as early as this year.
The Oklahoma Legislature has filed bills to be considered for the upcoming 2018 session, and three bills focus on early learners, two specifically with RSA.
SB1020, by Senator McCortney will push back the birthday date for school enrollment, which will end early enrollment of 4-year-olds into kindergarten. Some hope this change to policy will give third graders more time to mature before facing their first high-stakes test.
HB 2572, by Representative Casey, a member of the House Education Committee, modifies the levels for promotion. It would remove ‘Limited Knowledge’ as the threshold for retention, and return it to ‘Unsatisfactory’. This version of the RSA is also 25 pages long, with just the change of scoring level for promotion.
SB 1190 by Senator Stanislawski, the Chair of the Senate Education Committee changes the levels of performance completely, and requires Oklahoma Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA) to determine baseline and goals for student progress in reading foundations, process, and vocabulary. Goals written by OEQA are to be used locally to design remedial plans ‘to ensure students [are] on track to be college and career ready.” The bill removes the OCCT standardized test as the only criteria, and allows for IEP students to make ‘adequate progress.’ This version of the RSA is 29 pages.
It appears that Oklahoma legislators are determined to make RSA work…and will continue to tweak and revise in the future in the worthy pursuit of an equitable literacy education for our youngest students. In the meantime early childhood teachers will teach, and children will read.