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April 1, 2013

Debate ongoing for read or fail

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.

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