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Answers on Third Grade Reading

March 4, 2014

Janet Barresi and the SDE really, really want us to be ok with the third grade retention law. That explains this message that came to inboxes across the state today:

Dear educators:As you are well aware, this is a critical time for the Reading Sufficiency Act’s third-grade reading requirement. I know that those of you teaching K-3 are working hard to give your students the gift of literacy, and I have seen impressive reading plans in districts large and small across Oklahoma. With the OCCT testing window only a month away, I wanted to address some common questions about how to prepare for RSA today and in the months ahead.

As outlined by the RSA, by this point you already have identified struggling readers through benchmark assessments and have notified parents of the children who are struggling. In the coming weeks, keep doing what you do best — explore the fundamentals of reading with those students using whatever the techniques or resources you think will work most effectively. If you need assistance from one of our REAC3H coaches or the literacy department, help is only a phone call away.

Talk to parents or guardians. If you can reach out to families — especially those where education is not a priority — with accurate information about the RSA and the importance of literacy, you could help spark an entirely new future for those children.

Many of you have been assembling portfolios of work from your struggling readers. Please continue to do so. By no means are you required to create portfolios for all your students, but if you would like to assemble one for each child, that is up to you, your district or your local board. Remember, however, that a portfolio must clearly demonstrate that a student has mastered state standards beyond the retention level and that he or she is reading at least on grade level. A listing of specific elements required for a portfolio can be found here. If you have questions about what to include, please don’t hesitate to ask the OSDE.

Of course, the portfolio is just one of six good-cause exemptions in the reading law. While the specific structure and language of the exemptions are set by state law, you will work directly with your own districts to determine if a student qualifies for one. If you believe a student has met an exemption, take that evidence to your principal. Your school district will accept or reject the recommendation of your principal.

I have received some questions about the “alternative standardized reading test” exemption. This allows a student who scored Unsatisfactory on the reading portion of the OCCT to move on to fourth grade by passing a different assessment approved by the OSDE.

If you are concerned about a student’s chances on the OCCT, you do not have to wait until the scores are returned to administer an alternative assessment. Districts may begin offering alternative tests immediately after they administer the OCCT. Districts also choose which alternative tests to use.

I hope any of your students who score Unsatisfactory on the OCCT will have an opportunity to attend a summer reading academy. If those students are close to showing reading proficiency, intensive instruction over the summer may be enough to advance them to fourth-grade immediately. If they reach proficiency by Nov. 1, they could be promoted mid-year. That latter option would best serve students enrolled in a transitional grade that combines intensive reading remediation with the content of fourth-grade classes.

Retention is absolutely a last resort. Reading is essential. This law, established in 1997, is intended to lift kids up, not hold them back. The instructional model and retention opportunity was inserted in RSA nine years ago but became mandatory in the 2011 amendment. It sets long-term goals of catching troubled readers with benchmark tests long before they risk retention in the third grade. If they are retained, it should not be a repeat of what they already have learned but an opportunity to ensure they have the skills necessary to succeed for the rest of their lives.

I want to thank those of you who have taken the time to write to me with your thoughts and recommendations. It helps those of us at OSDE make appropriate adjustments in the program and in the supports we provide to you. Also, thank you to all of you who have attended our trainings. I hope you have found them to be of value.

Finally, I want to thank you for the work you do for the children of Oklahoma. Your steadfast commitment and professionalism are a testament to the greatness of teaching. My prayers are with you and for you and the children you faithfully serve.

Warmest regards,

Janet Barresi

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction

Three quick thoughts:

  1. Barresi appears to blame schools for the retention law being necessary in the first place. She states in the third-to-last paragraph that the “instructional model and retention opportunity was [sic] inserted in RSA nine years ago but became mandatory in the 2011 amendment.” In other words, if you had been meeting this unfunded mandate for the first six years, it wouldn’t have come to this! Except, of course, that Florida does it. And we love Florida! She turns this into praise for teachers in the final paragraph, however, with all of the “steadfast commitment and professionalism.”
  2. Apparently, Barresi – or whoever writes these letters for her – believes that a lot of Oklahoma schools are going to create transitional fourth grade classes.  They’re not. At most schools, we would be talking about a handful of students (probably between 0-5). The funding for classes that small just isn’t available. Additionally, in an ideal world, all of these students will ascend to fourth grade on Nov. 1 (which is a month after they would be considered Full Academic Year students, which is an altogether different rant).
  3. In the second-to-last paragraph, she thanks those of us who have made recommendations. This is a far cry from declaring that the time for debate is over. At most, when we contact the SDE, after a lengthy delay, we receive a response that essentially parrots back the FAQs listed on their website. Allow me to list in the following box all the changes that have been made to RSA implementation by the SDE following feedback from educators:

While I do agree that literacy is a gift, and I appreciate her prayers, I won’t pretend this email left me with the intended level of warmth. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would guess it’s not just me.

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  1. Brooke
    March 4, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    “Help is only a phone-call away” and “please don’t hesitate to call”….REALLY? Phones are not answered at the SDE and she KNOWS it.

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  2. Rob miller
    March 4, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    Another solid review of Barresi drivel. I also found it strange that she felt it necessary to state “my prayers are with you.” Most of reserve that phrase for times when we are trying to encourage someone through a difficult time in life, like an illness or death in the family. It seems awkward in a letter talking about third grade retention. Anyhow, at least she signed off with warmest regards. That made me feel good 🙂

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  3. PieOmy
    March 4, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the retention clause all wrong. Now that she categorizes it as an “opportunity”, I feel so much better about it! I’m off to tell my third graders about this super opportunity Dr. Barresi is providing to them and their friends. I know they’ll be just as relieved as I am!

    In all seriousness, this email is offensive for so many reasons.

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    • Rob miller
      March 4, 2014 at 9:07 pm

      Thank you for sparking a new future for these children!

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  4. Andra Iafrate
    March 4, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Transitional classes have already proven to be disastrous for students! My son was/is a victim of T-First! Apparently learning from your mistakes is not on the agenda of Ok dept. of Ed. I am a Cert. Sec. Science teacher who really just wants students who can read, spell, pass Algebra, take notes and take responsibility for their actions!

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  5. Kathy Booker
    March 5, 2014 at 6:50 am

    Ms B, Please do not allow state monies to be spent on the funding of poor curriculum. Educate yourself. Invest a bit of time reviewing the Wilson Rrading System or Susan Barton’s Bright Solutions. Stop districts from mandating that teachers use curriculum that is not adequate. Also, please lower class sizes. Children must have time to practice reading thoroughly at school as there will be no help at home. I tutor at home for free weekends and summers WHEN a parent will bother to bring them. Most of the time, I invite six and none or one will come. Educate new teachers in college with an Orton Gillingham approach to reading so that they do not naively drink the koolaide of the big basal publishers.

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