The concept is solid: A child spends the first three years in elementary school learning to read, and the rest of his time in school reading to learn.
We buy that.
Oklahoma’s application of that idea, however, has never worked and the reasons are obvious.
To “enforce” the importance of reading standards, the Oklahoma Legislature passed the Reading Sufficiency Act in 1997.
The law required third-grade students who don’t pass reading tests be held back for remediation.
Over the years, the state has alternatively dodged and recreated crises stemming from that law, including an important alteration, first passed in 2014, that has committees made up of parents, teachers and administrators make case-by-case decisions on 9-year-olds who don’t perform well on the high-stakes test.
One thing has remained constant: Insufficient funding of public schools.
Since 2008, no state has cut education funding more than Oklahoma.
Another crisis is coming next year, when the test’s cut score rises for third graders. An additional 14,900 Oklahoma children could face retention, more than double 2016’s level.
Not only does that raise the potential for another huge bulge in the third-grade classes, as new and retained students are crammed together, but it also raises the bureaucratic and cost problem of organizing thousands more committees to consider exceptions.
Let’s rethink this continuing cycle of crisis and inadequate resources.
First, while it’s important to ensure that students learn how to read on time, enforcing that concept with high-stakes testing is impractical, ineffective and poor policy. The Legislature tacitly admitted that when it started wiring around the mandate with the committee system. Among the things the Legislature isn’t well equipped to do is decide which students should go to fourth grade.
Second, and more important, mandating a massive realignment of the way schools operate without paying for the cost (or even paying the price of doing it right in the first place) is planned failure. There is one thing the Legislature can do about third-grade reading proficiency: adequately fund public schools.
The Reading Sufficiency Act was a pleasant placebo for legislators. It allowed them to campaign for re-election on the false claim that they had done something about the public schools.
What they did was raise the cost without raising the quality.
Until the Legislature is ready to pay the price of educating children, it has no place enforcing mandates triggered by their own actions. When you plan to fail, you shouldn’t be surprised when the result is failure.