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Local News

May 23, 2014

Lawmakers override Fallin to change third-grade reading law

Oklahoma City — Teachers, parents and school officials will have their say over whether to promote third-graders still struggling to read after lawmakers voted Wednesday to override Gov. Mary Fallin’s wishes to keep the Reading Sufficiency Act intact without changes.

The override vote to rewrite state literacy standards was not close. The House voted 79-17 and the Senate voted 45-2, fulfilling the three-fourth's vote required of both chambers to override a gubuernatorial veto.

Literacy testing for third-graders remains intact but significantly reduces the stakes for those who fail, under the changes.

Fallin doesn’t like it.

"Nothing was resolved today other than we decided we were going to throw out our standards for reading in the state of Oklahoma and go back to the way we used to do it in the past," said Fallin, vowing to revive the debate next year. "We’re setting (our children) up for failure if they can’t read and they can’t learn the subjects they’re going to be moving on to in the fourth grade.”

At issue was the 2011 Reading Sufficiency Act championed by state Superintendent Janet Barresi. Critics said it over-emphasized testing and placed too much control in the hands of state education officials.

The program gave parents and teachers of third-graders who fail a state literacy test a handful of choices — assemble a portfolio of work proving the student's reading ability; sign up the student for an alternative test; enroll the child in summer school; or sign up the student for tutoring.

In addition, students with disabilities or limited English proficiency could be promoted to fourth grade.

This year marked a turning point for the program: Though third-graders have taken literacy tests prior to this year, this was the first time that failing third-graders risked having to repeat the third grade.

The law passed this week leaves the testing in place but allows teams of parents, teachers, principals and reading specialists to decide whether students should advance.

The law passed with strong support in both Republican-controlled chambers of the Legislature. But Fallin vetoed the bill on Tuesday, saying lawmakers were sending Oklahoma back to a "broken system." Gene Perry, policy director of the non-partisan Oklahoma Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank in Tulsa, said the Legislature has returned decisions about students' futures to those most equipped to make them.

"The parents, honestly, and the teachers and the principals, are going to know a lot more about each individual student," he said.

Earlier this month education officials released findings that about 8,000 Oklahoma third-graders — or 16 percent — had scored “unsatisfactory” on the state tests. But Perry and other critics of the program said those numbers were misleading.About half the failing students had special needs, said Perry, while another quarter were learning English as a second language. Students in those categories can struggle to get exemptions from the 2011 act, he said.

Perry added that the test isn't a simple literacy exercise but assesses skills such as understanding an argument and grammar.

“Having that decision being put on any one test is problematic,” he said, noting that it may be useful in determining reading ability but shouldn’t be the only measure of a student's success.

Other groups came out in support of Fallin and her effort to keep the Reading Sufficiency Act unchanged.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank in Oklahoma City, called the Legislature's effort well-intentioned but their actions will “eviscerate” current law.

The group said in a statement: “Gov. Mary Fallin’s tough-love veto shows that she understands that it is anything but compassionate to promote a child to the fourth grade who is reading at a first-grade level or lower. Fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate, who cannot read and comprehend 'Green Eggs and Ham,' are well on their way to joining the ranks of Oklahoma’s adult illiterates. These are children whose lives will be damaged, many of them unalterably.”

The state Chamber of Commerce also praised Fallin’s “tough stance."

“When faced with the reality that a percentage of third-grade students can’t read at grade level, the response should not be to reduce the standard so more can be promoted,” said Chamber President and CEO Fred Morgan. “Instead, the response should be to come together as a state and do what is necessary to ensure our third-graders can read.”

 

 

 

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