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The Reading Scramble: Teachers Prep Third Graders For Read-Or-Fail

Michelle Hightower, third-grade teacher at Oakridge Elementary School in Oklahoma City.
Nate Robson
Oklahoma Watch

Two years ago, when Oklahoma third-grade students took the state’s annual reading test, nearly 5,500 them, or 11 percent, failed.

Last year, the results were worse, despite a stepped-up focus on reading instruction: 12 percent of third graders scored at the lowest of four levels, unsatisfactory, meaning they were still reading at about a first-grade level.

This year brings a tough consequence: Third graders who score unsatisfactory in reading on the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test will have to repeat the grade unless they are granted an exemption. The possibility that thousands of children will be held back has teachers and schools across the state going to great lengths to boost the reading skills of struggling students.

Teachers have nearly six weeks left to cut the number of students at risk of failure on the paper-and-pencil exam. Schools are required to administer the reading and math tests any time between April 10 and April 23. Results will be returned to schools by May 9.

This test will mark the first high-stakes assessment in the students’ academic career. The read-or-fail requirement is a provision of Oklahoma’s Reading Sufficiency Act, originally passed in the late 1990s and amended in 2011 to add the retention mandate. The goal of the law was to ensure students move from “learn to read” to “read to learn” by fourth grade, so they can then progress in all subjects. Many educators warn that retention could harm students’ learning and social adjustment.

“They’ve never taken this big of a test,” said Michelle Hightower, a third-grade teacher at Oakridge Elementary School in southeast Oklahoma City. “Some students have told me, ‘I’m very nervous about it.’”

Oklahoma Watch talked with three teachers in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Ardmore to find out what they’re doing to ensure students are prepared for the test.


The percentage of third graders who scored unsatisfactory on the reading part of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test has remained flat in recent years.

Credit Oklahoma State Department of Education / Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch


Giving students a stable place to learn is a big challenge at many schools.

At Oakridge Elementary, Hightower said it’s difficult to improve reading skills when so many students move in and out of her class during the year.

The school, part of Oklahoma City Public Schools, has a high mobility rate, 27 percent, which refers to students who move in and out of a school during the academic year. Most of that mobility is related to parents moving from one district to another, sometimes twice ore more a year. That can prevent students from keeping up in class, especially when districts use different course materials. Some students also are chronically tardy because their parents don’t get them to school on time.

“Tardiness and absences, I’m struggling with that,” Hightower said. “I need my students here to learn. I need parents to read and work with them at home.”

All of the students at Oakridge Elementary are low-income, according to state data on free and reduced-price lunch eligibility. Schools with higher percentages of low-income students tend to have higher shares of students who score the lowest on the reading test.

Nearly a third of Oakridge students scored unsatisfactory on reading in 2012. Sixty-nine percent scored not proficient, the second highest of the four levels.

Hightower said she would love to get assistance from reading intervention specialists, who are teachers specially trained to help students with reading, but the school can’t afford the extra positions.

Instead, the school is holding large- and small-group literacy sessions and crafting individualized lesson plans to address students’ weaknesses.

The district also has held voluntary reading programs during school vacations. During the two-week spring break in March, schools will stay open the first week to allow students to come in for all-day reading programs.

A similar program was held during winter break, but the initial strong attendance dropped off when bad weather arrived.

“Most of my kids have to walk to school,” Hightower explained.

Despite the pressure of the reading test, Hightower said she wants to help her students enjoy reading, not just focus on the exam.

“I tell them that no matter what happens on the test, reading is a lifelong skill. You’ll need it for everything,” she said.


Janet Davidson, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Ardmore.
Credit Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch
Janet Davidson, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Ardmore.


For an energetic third-grader, sitting quietly and taking a test for hours may be more challenging than the questions.

Third graders are used to quick exams, but the state test is their first prolonged, intensive exam. Some schools break up the math and reading portions over several days so students don’t spend an entire day on one exam.

At Lincoln Elementary School in Ardmore, teacher Janet Davidson gives mock tests to get students used to the rules, which include not being able to raise their hands for help.

“We are trying to get them used to the test environment,” Davidson said.

In 2012, about 13 percent of third graders at Lincoln Elementary scored unsatisfactory on the reading test, according to state data; 38 percent were below proficient. About eight in 10 of the school's students are from low-income families.

Davidson said she strives to present a brave face because the last thing third graders preparing for a high-stakes test need to see is a nervous teacher.

“Test time always makes me nervous, but at the same time I know we have done the best we can every day,” Davidson said, adding, “I’m hoping they went to bed early and got a good night’s sleep.”

Teachers at Lincoln Elementary also are preparing for the worst by giving students a possible way to advance to fourth grade even if they fail the test. The teachers are creating a portfolio for each student that holds classwork and assessment results that could be used as proof of reading proficiency to win an exemption.

“There are six exemptions if they don’t pass,” Davidson said. “With a portfolio, we can show that maybe a student is doing fine in the classroom, but for one reason or another did bad on the test.”


Allison Rucinski, a teacher at Robertson Elementary School in Tulsa.
Credit Oklahoma Watch
Oklahoma Watch
Allison Rucinski, a teacher at Robertson Elementary School in Tulsa.


Pressure to get students ready for the reading test is especially daunting for teachers fresh out of college.

First-year teacher Allison Rucinski said she is glad Tulsa Public Schools is using a team approach to try to get students across the finish line.

Rucinski, who is at Robertson Elementary School, has learned to rely on instructional workshops and a mentor teacher to help fine-tune her lesson plans.

“We’re definitely feeling the pressure,” she said. “Coming in as a first year teacher, it’s overwhelming whether or not our students will pass.”

Nearly 95 percent of the students at Robertson are from low-income families. About 10 percent of the school’s third-graders would have been at risk of repeating the grade if the Reading Sufficiency Act’s retention requirement had been in effect in 2012.

“I didn’t expect to graduate college to teach third-graders and have this on my shoulders,” Rucinski said. “It is a little stressful.”

Rucinski often stays up at night studying teaching strategies so the next day she can help her students prepare for April’s test.

Her students spend 90 minutes a day on reading skills. Strugglers get an additional 45 minutes of individualized instruction with a reading specialist.

Tulsa Public Schools offers after-school tutoring and reading clubs. Rucinski also has been working to get parents to read more with students at home.

“We want students to see how important it is to read,” Rucinski said. “It can’t just be us reading at school. Kids need to see that their parents care.”


Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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