Last updated: May 10. 2014 1:52PM - 445 Views
SEAN MURPHY Associated Press

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Nearly 16 percent of Oklahoma’s third graders scored “unsatisfactory” on state reading tests and could be held back next year, although state education officials said Friday they expect that number will drop considerably.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education released figures that show nearly 80 percent of third graders are eligible to advance to fourth grade based on their reading test scores. The 16 percent of students statewide who did not meet standards will have additional chances to retest or qualify for one of several exemptions before the start of the next school year, said agency spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton.

“We’re hoping that number would be cut by about half,” Pemberton said. “We won’t have a good figure until maybe September to see how many students are actually retained.”

The department reported about 4 percent of the state’s third graders did not take the test for various reasons.

The percentage of unsatisfactory third-grade readers in the state’s two largest districts, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, was nearly twice the state average — 32.7 in Tulsa and 28.9 percent in Oklahoma City.

Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard criticized the Department of Education for publicly releasing the scores before providing the data to the district.

“I find it a little puzzling and I find it very odd that I’m standing in front of you with no more data than we have,” Ballard said at a hastily called news conference Friday afternoon, “that a press release was issued statewide with Oklahoma City and Tulsa test scores on there. And again, I find that to be a highly unethical move.”

Ballard said he did not support automatically holding back the students who received unsatisfactory scores.

“There’s no evidence that retention is the answer in this case,” he said. “Do some students need to be retained? Absolutely, some students need to be retained. Should all of them be automatically retained? No, they should not.”

Among the “good cause” exemptions that allow students to advance to the fourth grade despite unsatisfactory scores are students who have limited proficiency in English, certain disabilities, or students who demonstrate reading proficiency through a teacher-developed portfolio or on alternative standardized reading tests.

The new standards are part of a Republican-led effort backed by Gov. Mary Fallin to increase rigor in the classroom and put an end to advancing children to the fourth grade who can’t demonstrate reading proficiency.

“The governor’s belief is that it’s immoral to send a third grader that can’t read at an appropriate level on to the fourth grade, because you’re setting them up for failure,” said Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz. “So our goal now that we’ve identified those students who are falling behind is to get them up to where they need to be as quickly as possible.”

The Oklahoma Education Association, which represents about 40,000 Oklahoma educators and staff, criticized the department for its “unjust testing process” and blamed at least some of the results on the Republican-led Legislature’s failure to appropriate enough money to help implement reforms like the new high-stakes third-grade reading tests.

“Our schools have put all efforts into meeting these recent mandated reforms, yet education funding has constantly been cut,” said OEA President Linda Hampton. “Something has got to change.”

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