By Michael McNutt
Public schools no longer will be able to promote third-grade students who cannot read at appropriate levels under a bill signed into law Wednesday.
"It has been said that in the first through the third grade a child learns to read, but the fourth grade on, a child reads to learn," said Gov. Mary Fallin, who signed Senate Bill 346 and another education measure into law during a bill-signing ceremony.
"If our children are not able to read at grade- appropriate levels, they can't learn the math, the science, the social studies as they continue to go through the education system.
"We're doing a great disservice to our children, a great disservice to our parents, a great disservice to our workforce when our children are passed from grade to grade without the ability to read at grade- appropriate levels."
SB 346 takes effect in late August.
Fallin also signed House Bill 1456, which will create an "A-F" grading system for public schools.
It will rate them with letter grades so parents and patrons can see how their schools are performing.
Both bills were proposals pushed by Fallin, who took office in January.
She mentioned ending the practice of "social promotion" in her State of the State address in early February to kick off this year's legislative session, which ends later this month.
Fallin said the proposals would improve the performance of students and public schools.
Joel Robison, associate executive director and chief lobbyist for the Oklahoma Education Association, said his group did not take a position on either measure, but he is skeptical of both.
"On the social promotion bill, our concern is that we have now set kind of an arbitrary line in the sand that kids have to be reading at grade three," he said.
"We, too, want all kids to be reading by grade three; however, we do think that there are instances that arbitrary deadlines may not be in the student's best interest. It may be in the best interest of the adults to have this clear line, but it may not be helpful to the students."
SB 346 requires school districts notify parents that their child has a reading deficiency and that the student would be held back if the deficiency isn't remedied. Public schools would be required to develop a plan to work with parents to help their child read.
Rep. Sally Kern, R- Oklahoma City, House author of the bill, said earlier that intense reading sessions would start with first-graders and continue each year through third grade.
Under the measure, a student could be held back in the first or second grade if not reading at appropriate levels.
No student can be held back more than twice; a student held back twice and still found to lack necessary reading skills at the end of the third grade would be promoted to the fourth grade but would receive additional reading instructions.
"It's about literacy," state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said.
"If a child can't read, they can't learn. This state is now drawing a very important line in the sand, and what we are saying is that we are going to assure that Oklahoma children are ready to read, ready to learn after the third grade."
Barresi said she had difficulty reading in the second grade and related how her teacher worked with her to learn to enjoy reading instead of being "moved on towards a lot of academic frustration."
Sen. Clark Jolley, R- Edmond, author of SB 346, said the measure is not intended to punish children.
"It's about identifying children early on, making sure that we give them the resources and the attention that they need," he said.
"This bill is about making sure that we as educators are doing what we can to identify the students that are most at need."
System will be more helpful, officials sayHB 1456 is similar to a proposal backed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been promoting education changes in appearances across the nation. He spoke about the proposal during appearances in Oklahoma last year and in March.
In Oklahoma, schools are scored on a national 0- to-1,500-point scale based on student performance known as the Academic Performance Index. API scores are published for every school.
Rep. Lee Denney, R-Cushing, author of HB 1456, said the letter- grading system will be more helpful because parents can better understand it.
"It's hard to understand what needs improvement or failing means, but when we say you're in an A school, you're in a B school, parents know what that means," she said.
"This bill will empower them to either work with the school board and fix the school that their children are in or take their child to a school that will serve their needs."
HB 1456 takes effect in late August.
"With that system in place, parents now will have the ability to quickly and easily be able to evaluate the quality of education that our children are receiving," Fallin said.
"It will encourage teachers and our administrators to continue to improve the education system and actually hold them accountable when they do not."
Robison said with all the information that is already available on school districts, it's unknown if the grading system is necessary.
"I don't know if parents are going to know any more than they would already know if they were willing to look," he said.
"It makes it easy. A school can get a grade that reflects certain things that is a true grade, but it may not be an accurate representation of everything that's going on at that school."