NORMAN — Tulsa-area principal Angie Teas grapples with a sobering fact: Nearly 40 percent of her third-grade students would have flunked last year if Oklahoma’s read-or-fail law had been in effect.
The principal of Mark Twain Elementary School in Sand Springs can count on one hand the number of third-graders retained during her seven-year career as a principal.
Last spring, 25 of her third-graders scored at the lowest level — unsatisfactory — on the statewide reading test. Next year, under Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act, students with that score will have to repeat third grade unless they get an exemption or improve to grade level by the fall.
Mark Twain Elementary has stepped up efforts to get its struggling students to read better before the law’s ultimatum kicks in. But Teas remains worried. About 15 percent of this year’s second-graders are at risk of failing in 2014.
Nearly all of Mark Twain’s students are from low-income families, which could magnify any negative effects of being retained, she said.
“We have students with parents in jail, students who are in the shelter down the street … (To those children,) who cares about reading and math if those things are going on?” Teas said.
The risks of a high rate of failure among Mark Twain’s third graders next year point to what some educators say is a worrisome part of the state’s reading act: A disproportionate share of those who fail will likely be poor children. Most could be boys.
An Oklahoma Watch analysis of state test data from 2012 found that elementary schools with higher rates of low-income students had greater shares of third graders who scored poorly on reading.
Statewide, 5,375 third graders, or 11 percent, scored last spring at the lowest level on the reading exam, according to state data. In the largest district, Oklahoma City Public Schools, 22 percent scored at the bottom; in Tulsa Public Schools, 25 percent did. More than four-fifths of students in both districts are low-income.
The results track with those on the “Nation’s Report Card,” or National Assessment of Educational Progress, which are tests give to a sampling of usually fourth- and eighth-grade students nationally. In 2011, 45 percent of poor students in Oklahoma scored below the basic level on NAEP’s reading test, compared with 36 percent of all students. Similar gaps existed between whites and minorities.
The Reading Sufficiency Act is intended to help more children read earlier, to advance from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” by fourth grade.
Supporters say the retention mandate will push schools to get their low performers up to speed and stop social promotion, in which students are moved up without mastering skills.
Opponents say retention could lead to harmful lasting effects, including lagging achievement, higher dropout rates and social and emotional problems. Poor students are less likely to have support resources at home to recover, some experts say.
Researchers have studied the effects of retention for decades. Many have found that retention either has little or no benefit or causes severe harm. Other studies have challenged that view.
A pivotal factor, experts say, is whether retained students get enough intervention to rebound in learning and not suffer in other ways. At the school level, that comes down to money, and in Oklahoma, lawmakers and educators debate whether the Reading Sufficiency Act has enough.
In class: Elizabeth Clarke, a second-grade teacher at Mark Twain, flitters about her classroom collecting papers and answering questions as students learn how to put sentences together. Students finished with their work are reading “Lion King” books and chirping among themselves.
Clarke guides them to their seats and looks over their work.
Clarke has taught first- or second-grade classes for 10 years, and says her passion is teaching reading. She has 32 students in her class, making it hard for her to give them individualized attention, she said.
To track their progress, she has a manila folder with sticky tabs in it representing each student. When she gives reading assessment tests, she puts a student’s tab under headings for areas in which the student struggles, such as vocabulary. This helps her identify students who need small-group learning or one-on-one study time with her teaching assistant.
Clarke says she supports the reading act’s read-or-fail provision because it will motivate educators to focus on teaching reading.
“I think too many kids are not on grade level and are allowed to be promoted,” Clarke said. “It makes it harder for next year’s teacher to have a child come in below grade level.”
But retention alone won’t work, she said.
Parents must ensure their children get to school and help them learn at home, and lawmakers must fund mandates and hire enough teachers to reduce class sizes, she said. If those groups don’t work together, her job becomes difficult.
The reading law: Oklahoma’s reading act was passed in the 1990s mainly to provide funding to help first- and third-grade students improve reading skills. In 2011, after heated debate, lawmakers added test-based promotion.
The law requires school districts to assess children’s reading levels in kindergarten; each school must submit reading plans on how to improve strugglers’ skills.
Starting in 2014, third-graders who score “unsatisfactory” on the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test for reading will be held back unless they are given an exemption.
Exemptions include having limited English proficiency, passing state-approved alternative assessment tests or providing a teacher’s documentation proving the child has adequate reading skills. Students who complete a summer reading program are also eligible for promotion, at the teacher’s discretion.
Retained students can be promoted mid-year if they pass a state-approved assessment test or develop a reading portfolio to prove their ability to read at grade level.
Oklahoma Department of Education officials say the reading act is designed to help schools improve most students’ skills regardless of reading habits at home or attendance problems.
Tricia Pemberton, spokeswoman for the education department, said some schools with many low-income students score well on state reading tests.
“(These schools) are doing it with the same amount of funding, no more or no less funding,” Pemberton said. “They can do it.”
Florida model: Oklahoma’s reading law is modeled off a Florida read-or-fail law enacted in 2002. The law has been touted as the reason for the state’s academic gains.
Since 2002, average fourth-grade reading scores in Florida on the Nation’s Report Card have jumped by 11 points and are five points above the national average. Minority and low-income students made significant improvements.
The results speak to Florida’s efforts to help struggling kids and hold back the children that need more time, said Mary Laura Bragg, who a decade ago headed then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s reading office and helped craft the reading law.
After Florida’s law took effect, the number of retained third-graders soared by more than 300 percent — to 23,166, according to state education data. The number has fallen since, but the state still holds back more students than it did before the law was passed.
Researchers are still scrutinizing the effects.
Nation’s Report Card data show that while Florida’s fourth-grade reading scores climbed, those for eighth-grade students have improved only slightly. Eighth-grade reading scores remain just below or above the national average.
A 2012 Harvard University study found that achievement by retained Florida students rose in the short term but was statistically insignificant after six years.
The study concluded that retained students did not suffer academically, but the effects of only retention, apart from intervention, could not be measured. Florida required schools to enroll retained students in summer reading programs and give them high-performing teachers and other intervention.
Shane Jimerson, a professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara who researches retention, said holding students back produces a short-term boost in productivity but is a long-term detriment. Retained children can suffer social problems because they reach puberty earlier than classmates and can feel stigmatized.
“Having a law with a retention mandate is akin to education malpractice,” Jimerson said.
He criticized the Harvard study, partly because it measured only academic success rather than a combination of social, mental health and academic effects.
But he and Martin West, co-author of the Harvard study, agree that additional reading aid is essential to helping struggling students.
The key question is, how much intervention, and at what cost?
Rescue costs: Oklahoma’s law prescribes ways for schools to help students who don’t read well.
The methods include regular monitoring, more in-school time spent on reading, tutoring and drawing up a reading curriculum. For students who fail, schools can reduce teacher-student ratios, use small-group learning, extend the school day or provide summer reading academies.
Most of those cost money. But intervention costs far less than the extra $8,000-plus for each student who repeats third grade.
Oklahoma’s reading act came with additional funding, but recent appropriations have dried up.
Schools received $6.2 million for K-3 reading intervention in fiscal 2012 but nothing in 2013, so many schools carried over part of the 2012 funding.
State Superintendent Janet Barresi is seeking $6.5 million for the Reading Sufficiency Act for the rest of 2013 and $6.2 million for 2014. The state also has about $4 million in federal money for teacher training.
Mark Twain Elementary received about $8,000 in carried-over reading-act funding, which Teas said she is using for teacher salaries during the winter intersession. That intersession is free for students, but availability is limited, depending on how many teachers the school can afford to pay.
“There is never enough money to do all we can for students,” Teas said. “But we are prioritizing our funds to the best of our ability.”
It is difficult to compare per-pupil spending by Oklahoma and Florida on their reading laws because of the timing and targeting of the spending.
Unlike Oklahoma, Florida began offering extra reading-law money only the fiscal year the law took effect. From fiscal 2003 to 2005, Florida spent $10 million each year in federal money for training K-3 teachers, reading coaches and principals, according to state data. It also set aside $25 million in 2004 and 2005 for summer reading programs for mostly third-graders, but also some 12th-graders, who faced retention, according to state data. Adjusted for inflation, the total equates to about $97 million today.
If Barresi’s requests are approved, Oklahoma will have spent at least $23 million on the reading act from 2012 to 2014 for K-3. The state may appropriate additional money after the first wave of retained students.
Florida’s K-3 enrollment a decade ago was two and a half times Oklahoma’s K-3 enrollment today.
Regrets: Teas, the Mark Twain principal, says she has seen firsthand the negative impact that retention can have on a child. Her son, Zach, was held back in the second grade.
During his first year in second grade, Zach was put through tutoring and after-school programs and had a support system at home encouraging him to read, Teas said. In the end, she decided to hold him back.
Even now, her eyes water and her voice grows heavy when she talks about the decision, which Zach’s educators supported. She thinks the retention played a large part in Zach’s not having motivation later in school. He graduated from an alternative high school and did not attend college. He now works at a call center.
Zach, 21, of Tulsa, said he takes responsibility for his education path. He wants to pursue a career related to video games.
“It isn’t something you wish on your children,” Teas said about her son not attending college. “You want them to live up to their full potential.”