Home > Uncategorized > Third Grade Reading Scores: Lessons in Bad Form

Third Grade Reading Scores: Lessons in Bad Form

May 9, 2014

By 10:00 this morning, most Oklahoma school districts were able to log on to CTB’s secure site and view preliminary third grade reading scores. By 10:48, the Oklahoma State Department of Education had released a bulletin proclaiming the addition of high-stakes testing to the Reading Sufficiency Act a success. It’s a long bulletin, so rather than posting it in full as I normally do, I’m going to get to it piece-by-piece.

Nearly 80 percent of state third-graders to be promoted to fourth-grade

16 percent score Unsatisfactory on Oklahoma reading test

OKLAHOMA CITY (May 9, 2014) – About 80 percent of Oklahoma third-graders are eligible to be promoted to fourth-grade based on the state’s reading test scores, according to figures released today to Oklahoma school districts and elementary schools. Sixteen percent of third-graders scored Unsatisfactory but will have two additional opportunities to demonstrate basic reading skills through a student portfolio or an alternative reading assessment provided for under the state’s Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA).

Under the RSA, schools now will determine which third-grade students qualify for one of the law’s good-cause exemptions to allow promotion to fourth-grade. Students who scored Unsatisfactory will have the summer to take alternate tests and attend summer reading academies. Teachers can provide portfolios of a child’s work to show he or she can read at grade level.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi thanked teachers in pre-kindergarten through third-grade for their tremendous work in helping to ensure every child is able to read.

“Nothing is more fundamental to a child’s education than the ability to read, and it is our responsibility to educators to see to it that all children have the resources necessary to gain this vital skill before they slip further and further behind. We are moving in the right direction,” Barresi said.

“The strong numbers for proficient readers attest to the hard work and tenacity of our children and their teachers. In the three years since the enactment of the RSA’s retention portion, teachers have devoted countless hours and leant their expertise to improving reading instruction for children. They have done superbly.”

Superintendent Barresi heralds the fact that four-fifths of the state’s third graders are eligible for promotion. She glosses over the fact that one-fifth aren’t. We’ve never collectively held back 20 percent of a grade-level in Oklahoma.

Yes, schools are working through Mother’s Day weekend to figure out how to apply the six good-cause exemptions. Unfortunately, they don’t provide much in the way of relief – not even for special education students or English-language learners.

About those three years, though – if the current incarnation of RSA is so great, then why are unsatisfactory rates climbing? As this graphic from Nate Robson at Oklahoma Watch shows, the unsatisfactory rate has risen during Barresi’s tenure.

Part of the problem has been the loss of funding for RSA by the legislature. More importantly, the SDE has confused the implementation of every major reform they have supported. While some of their REACH coaches have provided great professional development for the districts they serve, there has been a lack of focus. If we’re grading people on the value they add…

“Doomsday predictions from some critics of RSA had suggested that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of our third-graders would score Unsatisfactory. But Oklahoma teachers and schoolchildren were, and are, up for the challenge.”

Statewide, scores for the third-grade reading Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT) were as follows:

1,120 — or 2.2 percent — scored Advanced

32,531 — or 64 percent — scored Proficient

7,070 — or 13.9 percent — scored Limited Knowledge

7,970 — or 15.7 percent — scored Unsatisfactory

The RSA includes special exemptions for students with disabilities, English Language Learners and students who have been retained twice. When these good-cause exemptions are factored in, the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) anticipates the number of students facing retention to decrease significantly.

Four percent did not take the test for various reasons (absent, no longer enrolled, etc.).

I don’t recall seeing the 25 to 40 percent predictions. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there, but I didn’t see them. Next year, when we have an all new test from an all new vendor based on whatever we’re calling the state standards at that time, this will be a reasonable projection.

Barresi also overstates the extent to which IEP and ELL kids will be spared. Yes, in many schools, the majority of students scoring unsatisfactory on the test fall into these two categories. The reality is that the state regulations do little to help. Here are the good cause exemptions relating to those groups:

1. Be identified as Limited-English Proficient (LEP)/English Language Learner (ELL) on a screening tool approved by the Oklahoma State Department of Education Office of Bilingual/Migrant Education and have a Language Instruction Educational Plan (LIEP) in place prior to the administration of the third grade criterion referenced test; and the student must have had less than two (2) years of instruction in an English Language Learner (ELL) program.

5. Students with disabilities who participate in the statewide criterion-referenced test and have an IEP may qualify for a good cause exemption. To qualify for this exemption, the student must meet the following criteria: (A) The student must have been previously retained in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, or third grade; (B) The student’s IEP must: (i) Identify Reading as an area of education need for the student or identify some type of special education service in the area of Reading; and; (ii) Reflect that the student has received intensive remediation for more than two years. Intensive remediation may include any type of program offering intensive reading instruction that is identified as appropriate by the IEP team.

Anybody who has ever worked with ELL students knows that language acquisition takes more than two years. And anybody who thinks that retaining special education students who are making gains is a good idea has never worked with them. Then again Janet Barresi thinks that most special education identifications are wrong.

One of the more dramatic successes to emerge from the RSA concerns students on Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. Although 11.38 percent of third-graders last year scored Unsatisfactory on the reading test, it is important to note that 6.5 percent more students took the exam this year. That’s because this marked Oklahoma’s first year in which first-time test takers on an IEP did not have the option of taking a modified test. Oklahoma is one of the last states to phase out use of modified tests for students on an IEP.

Although about 3,000 more students with disabilities took the reading portion of the OCCT than in previous years, the percentage of Unsatisfactory scores rose by only 4 percent. Barresi credited that feat to extraordinary work of teachers.

She also praised the efforts of OSDE literacy (or REAC3H) Coaches. The coaches have traveled throughout the state, offering professional development in classrooms and training teachers, administrators and reading specialists to help their students improve reading skills.

“I need to give a big pat on the back to our REAC3H coaches,” Barresi said. “They have helped work miracles. I hear nothing but praise for them from educators from all across the state.”

She credits teachers, praises REACH coaches, and more or less blames the increase in unsatisfactory scores on special education students. That’s not all of the increase, however. The 3,000 increase in students taking the test is six percent of the roughly 50,000 total test-takers. So if all the increase is to be explained by more special education students taking the regular test, that means two-thirds of them scored unsatisfactory.

It’s nice that Barresi publicly credited teachers. As always, though, praise from her rings hollow.

Challenges face the state’s largest school districts. 32.7 percent of Tulsa third-graders scored Unsatisfactory, while 28.9 percent of Oklahoma City’s third-graders scored Unsatisfactory.

“The scores reveal the extent of the considerable work that will be needed in these districts, but great strides are being made,” Barresi said. “Teachers are committed to helping these students. There can be no option but to get these kids on track for literacy.”

The superintendent said educators recognize that many students who scored Unsatisfactory and do not meet a good-cause exemption may be anxious about what’s ahead.

“We want to reassure these students and their families that we will do everything possible to support the efforts to ensure they can read on grade level so they can have the earliest chance of promotion,” she said.

A number of school districts have scheduled summer reading academies, while others have put “transitional” grades in place. Some districts indicate they are considering mid-year promotion.

“An individual who isn’t given the opportunity to learn how to read is denied an opportunity to be a fully contributing citizen. Not only is that individual harmed, but our society is made the worse for it. If you cannot read, you cannot be enthralled by Charlotte’s Web. You cannot marvel at the genius of the Declaration of Independence. You cannot read the word of the Lord in the Bible,” said Barresi. “When Gov. Fallin and state legislators strengthened the RSA three years ago, they did so to ensure all our children have the gift of literacy.”

The scores reveal the extent to which abject poverty impacts our urban schools. We’re not talking about students who barely qualify for free/reduced lunch. We’re talking about a majority of students who come to school hungry. We live in a state that refuses to address poverty or properly fund public education, but we want to make sure the kids can read about pigs, spiders, liberty, and Jesus. In addition to school finance and child development, apparently Barresi also needs a basic course on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Third-graders who score Unsatisfactory on state tests and benchmark assessments are reading at about a first-grade level or below. First-graders proficient in reading can read simple words at the rate of about 60 words per minute. Fourth-graders, however, are expected to read 120 to 150 words per minute, and with more difficult text. They must read fluently for comprehension versus just learning to decode words.

Established in 1997, the RSA requires districts to conduct benchmark reading assessments at the start of kindergarten, first, second and third grades. A district must implement customized remediation plans for students with reading difficulties.

Although the law was in place for 17 years and funded by more than $80 million, the number of third-graders with reading difficulties was not showing improvement.

With the 2011 addition of the amendment on third-grade retention, many school districts have redoubled their efforts to help children read on grade level.

Starting Monday, Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) literacy staff and REAC3H Coaches will be manning telephone hotlines for educators and parents who have questions concerning the application of the RSA.

The RSA Hotlines will be active from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays from Monday through Friday, May 23.

Parents and community members can call (405) 521-3774 to leave comments or questions. The line will be monitored, with responses provided in a timely fashion.

District personnel who have questions should call (405) 521-3301, the main OSDE helpdesk line. Questions will be answered or calls routed to appropriate staff.

Of course, districts and parents are still welcome to contact OSDE for additional help after that period.

Again, Barresi provides misinformation about what the test tell us. They do not diagnose reading level. I enjoyed this response from the Norman Public Schools on Twitter. In what can be described as a great lesson in word choice, they called it the “3rd grade language arts exam” instead of a reading test. This more accurately explains to their parents and community what the scores represent.

Barresi is also wrong about the impact of the law over 17 years. Third grade reading scores did show improvement. Even fourth grade NAEP scores have improved over that time. ACT scores have improved too.

For months now we’ve heard Janet Barresi complain that 17 years of RSA without high stakes brought little gain. Now, with one year of high stakes, scores drop. Explain. And you don’t get to blame the special education kid. Neither do we, for that matter.

The only reason I care about these test scores is because people with no real investment in the children use them to make bad decisions – decisions that hurt kids. Yet in another show of bad form, the SDE released the scores by district on their website and to the media before many districts even had a chance to log on and look at them – much less contact parents. I’m all for transparency, and I’ve always said that test scores by grade, subject, and score level are a much better snapshot of school performance than A-F Report Cards, but these are only preliminary scores. The top of each score report has the following disclaimer:

Preliminary results pending corrections and SDE-approved status codes

This decision frustrated the Oklahoma City superintendent and the Tulsa superintendent. Rather than giving schools time to review the results and contact parents, they had to answer calls from all parents. The SDE added to the problem by creating unnecessary chaos. There will be updates. There will be status code changes. These things will impact whether students are retained.

But in their haste to make a big splash and somehow proclaim the fact that thousands of Oklahoma students may be retained (and that even more are worried) was somehow a victory, Janet Barresi and the SDE stumbled yet again.

This is why we must flood the legislature with phone calls, emails, and in-person visits on Monday. The House will hear HB 2625, which places the decision about retaining students back in the hands of parents and teachers. They will still review the test scores. They will still discuss the application of the good cause exemptions – or if none can be met. In some cases, they will still decide that retention is the best option.

The difference of course is who decides. A year’s worth of evidence will carry more weight than one test. A student’s IEP will carry more weight. A holistic evaluation of what the student knows and can do far outweighs a limited assessment that only arguably tests reading level.

If you’re like me, you’re mad, sickened, frustrated, and sad. Politicians playing with the lives of children will do that.

  1. joeddins
    May 9, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    Thank you for the good information. The test proves we do not know how to teach all children how to read. This has been going on for years. We are doing the best we are able. To be as intense with these children as the news reports suggest, with no change for the children is child abuse. Because it is happening in the suburbs we will change.


  2. Kate
    May 9, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    Mad, sickened, frustrated, and sad. That about sums it up.


  3. Shawna
    May 9, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    It’s an election year!!! HELLO! Of course she thanked teachers! She knows we HATE her and everything she has done to our kids and to education as a whole so now she is grasping at straws for our votes. AND if you are an educator and you vote for her, SHAME ON YOU!!! I will be casting my vote for Joy Hofmeister. ELECTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES!!!!!


    • Brooke
      May 10, 2014 at 4:24 pm

      I will be voting for a candidate with ACTUAL public school administrative experience. Joy’s 2 years in a classroom (25 years ago!) hardly inspires me to vote for her. There are several candidates from both parties with adequate experience. I just do not think that Joy has that. Spending the last 20+ years running a for-profit testing/tutoring company doesn’t cut it.

      Personally, I’m supporting John Cox, a 29 year PUBLIC school educator with 21 years of public school administrative experience.


      • May 10, 2014 at 6:02 pm

        There are two races right now: Republican primary and the Democratic primary. When we get past June 24 (and any potential runoff), I’ll compare the Rs to the Ds. Maybe not on my blog, but personally at least. In the meantime, I want the best R to win and the best D.


      • Brooke
        May 10, 2014 at 8:36 pm

        I agree as well that we want a good candidate out of each primary. I haven’t been able to find out a lot, yet, on Brian Kelly, but he is a R candidate with public school educator/administrator experience and opposes the federal intrusion into education via CC.

        I think he is a more qualified, and better choice than Joy. Just my opinion, but experience is vital for this position. Just look how great Barresi was.


  4. K Sword
    May 9, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    REACH Coach? What/who is that? She has never darkened the doors of our building! What a waste of money…typical!


    • Tammy
      May 10, 2014 at 8:31 am

      “Doomsday predictions from some critics of RSA had suggested that anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of our third-graders would score Unsatisfactory. But Oklahoma teachers and schoolchildren were, and are, up for the challenge.” There were no doomsday predictions – if you add Unsatisfactory to Limited Knowledge you get almost 30% who didn’t pass this test. Limited Knowledge is still not passing and those kids will need extra help going forward to keep them from slipping into Unsatisfactory in the future. And only 2% scored Advanced? That, to me, is more telling. That’s a tiny window. I think the numbers speak more to the quality of this test than to the quality of the schools/teachers.


    • Kelli
      May 10, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      If you are a PreK-3rd grade teacher, you should have had an opportunity to work with a REAC3H Coach either at your site or through professional development opportunities. Some district administrators have declined REAC3H Coach services or just had the coaches working with specific sites. http://www.reac3hcoach.com


      • May 10, 2014 at 5:59 pm

        I’ve said a number of times that I know a lot of people who feel their REACH coaches have been beneficial to their schools. I also know some who feel differently. In any case, there is only so much time to work with people and needs have to be prioritized. Not every school needs or has had time spent with the coaches.


    • Kelli
      May 10, 2014 at 6:31 pm

      🙂 Part of my job is providing information, and I’m just crowding your blog comment space to share. I was letting K Sword know where he/she could find information. You are correct in saying needs need to be prioritized. Even if we are not available at a site (for whatever reason), teachers can utilize other services of the REAC3H Coaches.
      1. Websites
      2. Facebook Pages
      3. Email/text/call – to answer questions and/or provide resources
      4. Attend workshops (of any coach, not just the ones assigned to the district)
      The list goes on and on. I’ve provided PD to districts whose teachers had no idea what a REAC3H Coach was. It makes me sad that they don’t know about an available resource.

      As you have maybe already figured out, I am very passionate about my job – being a resource to teachers. When I was in the classroom, the students were “my kids”. As a coach, the teachers in my districts have become “my teachers”. Therefore it stings a little when someone says I’m a waste of money.


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