Is the state’s third grade reading test taking attention away from other subjects? Test data suggests it could be. When legislators amended the Reading Sufficiency Act in 2011—they made the test a high stakes test. As a result, many teachers overly emphasize reading in the younger grades because they’re scared their students will fail, and get held back.
When lawmakers amended the Reading Sufficiency Act, they wanted to ensure that all kids could read on grade level by the third grade. They said this is when kids switch from learning to read, to reading to learn.
The Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, says the law is working. The most recent data shows a slight improvement in third grade test scores, but fourth grade reading scores are up five percent.
Third grade math scores, however, are down. Which the superintendent also attributed to the extra focus on reading.
"I think that the Reading Sufficiency Act has been the primary focus for our teachers and parents as they’re preparing for the third grade reading assessment," she said. "Those spring tests that are given in math and English- there's a heavy emphasis in the reading."
Other school districts saw much steeper drops in math scores. In Oklahoma City Public Schools the third grade math scores went down 8 points. In Tulsa Public Schools, it’s been a gradual decline of 14 points over the past three years.
Hofmeister said this highlights a need for a more balanced approach.
"It is essential that we have strong mathematics and that those scores reflect the same kind of advancement as we're starting to see in reading," she said.
The Chief Academic Officer at Tulsa Public Schools, Tracy Bayles, said the focus on the Reading Sufficiency Act could be one reason for the dip in math scores. But she thinks there are lots of other factors at play, too.
"You know we’ve had testing companies change, we’ve had tests change, we’ve had a lot of standards changing," she said. "We’ve had a lot of things going on with the state of Oklahoma in the past few years."
She also thinks the math test questions are simply more difficult than they used to be.
"The text complexity has increased. The sophistication of the language and the questions is much more rigorous," Bayles said.
I called about twenty other districts to get their take on the issue. Some teachers said they weren’t having any problems. But others, who declined to speak on the record, said the extra focus on reading was detracting from more than just math.
One third grade teacher said she had less time to teach science. An elementary school principal said her fifth grade social studies scores were way down, and attributed some of that to the intense reading focus.
The Superintendent of Norman Public Schools, Dr. Joe Siano, says it’s natural for tested subjects to get the majority of the focus. He says statewide, and nationally, most accountability measures hover around literacy and mathematics.
"I think to some extent, that’s at the expense of every other important content area that you also have to address," he said.
Siano agrees that reading is the foundation of education, but says the ultimate goal is to graduate a well-rounded student. To ensure that, Siano says he focuses on the long-term trends.
"What I really worry about and look at is, what does that third grade score look like in the fourth grade, and fifth grade, and as that student progresses."
His district’s third grade math scores dipped a little, but they popped back up in the fourth grade-just like fourth grade math scores state-wide.
Superintendent Hofmeister agrees that one year of data doesn’t make a trend. But she says the state Department of Education is still watching this closely.