John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, posts frequently about education in his state.


Last week, National Public Radio’s Alexandra Starr first reported on Florida’s mandatory retention of 3rd graders who don’t pass a reading proficiency test. Even though it is stigmatizing for children to be retained, and “multiple studies have found that flunking a grade makes it much more likely students will fail to graduate from high school,” the high stakes testing law has spread to about 40 percent of states.

States Are Ratcheting Up Reading Expectations For 3rd-Graders

NPR’s Starr draws on experts like Pedro Noguera, Nell Duke, and Diane Horm, while explaining how short-term benefits of 3rd grade retention “dissipate over time.” She also cites Marty West, a Big Data researcher who sidesteps the anxiety imposed on children and pressure on teachers to increase pass rates through ill-conceived instructional practices, and says that Florida’s well-funded mandatory retention law doesn’t hurt students’ graduation rates. Neither does West address states like Oklahoma, with chronic underfunding of education.And that leads to the first slippery slope created by Florida’s willingness to scale up punishments for young children and their teachers in order to improve student performance. At least it invests more than $130 million per year on its reading sufficiency act. When Oklahoma legislators, who were often persuaded by Jeb Bush’s public relations campaign, passed its reading act, they intended to invest $150 per struggling reader, but they only came up with $6 million, which was enough for only about $75 per student. It took six years to find money for about $153 per student.

For First Time, ‘Read or Fail’ Law Is Fully Funded. Will It Reduce Retentions?

In NPR’s second report focusing on Tulsa Ok., Starr shows the benefits of well-funded, holistic pre-kindergarten instruction. Oklahoma and edu-philanthropists fund such classes for 4-year-olds; nearly 3/4ths of Oklahoma students enroll in pre-k. And, next door to a comprehensive pre-k partnership, the majority-Hispanic Rosa Parks Elementary School illustrates the promise of partnerships for improving public schools. It is a part of the Tulsa Union community school system which so impressed David Kirp that his New York times article that featured Rosa Parks was entitled “Who Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These?”  Oklahoma Among States Setting Higher Reading Expectations For 3rd-Graders Rosa Parks elementary teacher explained the dilemma schools face regarding kids who aren’t on track to pass the high stakes 3rd grade test, “Very early on, we have to put them on a plan if we think that they’re going to be held back in third grade for a test.” Unfortunately Starr didn’t have time to dig into those plans the way that Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer has done. It leads to the second slippery slope created by high stakes testing for 3rd graders.

Palmer cites a librarian who explained, “‘RSA allows two years of retention, and two years in third grade would be worse,’ she said. ‘They would be completely destroyed.’” And that raises the question about the risks educators can/must take in order to not completely destroy their students.

The Oklahoma Watch’s study of federal data showed that 2,533 3rd graders were retained in 2015-16. Worse, she found that “repeating a grade is actually more common in kindergarten and first grade,” and “the high-stakes third-grade test appears to drive many of the early retentions.”  Oklahoma retained 3,977 kindergarteners, and a total of 10,345 students in the kindergarten through 2ndgrades.

These retentions were not evenly spread across the state. Next door to Tulsa Union, the Tulsa Public Schools, for instance, has about 2-1/3rds as many students as Union. The TPS retained 823 students through kindergarten and second grade, or more than 4-1/3rds as many. We can only hope that the edu-philanthropists who fund worthy early education programs, as well as their opposite – the corporate reform policies of Deborah Gist’s TPS – will realize how and why those two approaches are the antithesis of each other..

Palmer also touched on the third slippery slope when she explained the benchmark assessments that are used in predicting failure on the end-of-year tests. She writes, “Schools also rely on computerized benchmarking programs to glean more information on students’ skillsets and how they compare to other students their age.” But, to say the least, they are “not an exact science.” This leads to crucial, potentially life-changing and risky decisions being made by parents and teachers using data on a computer screen that they acknowledge they don’t understand.

Lastly, the dehumanizing slide down into systems where the punitive is seen as normal, even for our youngest students, might or might not have been predictable. Twenty years ago, the reward and punishment of kindergarteners would have seemed despicable. Market-driven reform may have begun as a way to force teachers to comply. Then it was dumped on teenagers. Now, when such stressful incentives and disincentives are imposed on 5-year-olds, it doesn’t seem surprising to read Big Data studies that claim that those who fail tests in the states with the most funding for competition-driven reform may not be damaged as much as previously thought …