Commentary: Reading skills are a must 


click to enlarge Janet Barresi
  • Janet Barresi

Perhaps that is why students who struggle with it often give up on school. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out. In today’s world, the lack of a high school diploma typically has severe economic consequences. Seventy-five percent of people who receive food stamps, for example, are high school dropouts.

The importance of reading transcends the classroom. It is not a coincidence that seven of 10 prison inmates are unable to read at more than a fourth-grade level. Simply put, being able to read means greater opportunity.

Given the monumental importance of literacy, Oklahoma lawmakers in 1998 passed the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA). In 2011, Gov. Mary Fallin signed into law an amendment to it, mandating that a third-grade student must score better than Unsatisfactory on the reading portion of the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test before moving on to the fourth grade.

That change greatly improved a law that had been rendered somewhat anemic. Under the RSA, struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade were to be identified, placed on individualized remediation plans and given intensive intervention. In practice, however, too few students received this specialized help. Reading scores remained alarmingly low. Oklahoma’s children deserved better.

Now that there is a clearly defined time frame by which thirdgraders must possess the necessary reading skills, schools are changing the way they address this problem.

Several schools I’ve visited have reorganized their reading teachers, adopted different curriculum and are more focused on the individual needs of each child. Some parents and teachers are worried about the stigma of students being held back. I understand that concern. But while it’s important to understand that retention is absolutely a last resort, I would add that we don’t do our children any favors by setting them up for a lifetime of frustration and limited opportunity.

The reason 10 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar versions of the third-grade reading law is simple: It works.

Back in 1998, Florida’s fourthgrade students were reading more than half a grade level below the national average. Today, its fourth-graders are reading at half a grade level above the national average.

In the 2000-2001 school year, 29 percent of Florida’s third-graders couldn’t read, but only about 3 percent were retained. Then the state ended social promotion to ensure its children could read at grade-level. As a result, the Sunshine State has cut illiteracy by nearly half in the last decade. As literacy rates there have climbed, retention rates have steadily declined — as have the numbers of students identified as learning-disabled.

Oklahoma has many excellent public schools and teachers, but we cannot afford to ignore serious problems. Our children need to know how to read, and fourth grade is the time when kids stop learning to read and start reading to learn.

Change is difficult, but sometimes change is necessary. We need to give children the skills they need for success. In the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Janet Barresi is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction for Oklahoma.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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