The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

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May 21, 2014

Oklahoma lawmakers overwhelmingly override Fallin to rewrite literacy rules

OKLAHOMA CITY — Teachers and school officials will have their say over whether to promote third-graders still struggling to read, thanks to lawmakers who forced a rewrite of state literacy standards, despite the protest of Gov. Mary Fallin.

Fallin on Tuesday had vetoed a bill that would have modified the Reading Sufficiency Act to allow teams of parents, teachers, principals and reading specialists to decide whether students should advance.

On Wednesday, lawmakers voted to override Fallin’s veto — by votes of 79-17 in the House and 45-2 in the Senate. Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, voted to sustain Fallin’s veto. By their vote Wednesday, lawmakers upheld the law that allows literacy testing for third-graders, but significantly reduces the stakes for those who fail.

“Nothing was resolved today, other than we decided we were going to throw out our standards for reading in the state of Oklahoma and go back to the way we used to do it in the past,” Fallin said, vowing to revive the debate next year. “We’re setting (our children) up for failure if they can’t read and they can’t learn the subjects they’re going to be moving onto in the fourth grade.”

At issue was the 2011 Reading Sufficiency Act championed by state Superintendent Janet Barresi. Critics said the program over-emphasized testing and placed too much control in the hands of state education officials.

The program gave parents and teachers of third-graders who fail a state literacy test a handful of choices — assemble a portfolio of work proving the student’s reading ability; sign up the student for an alternative test; enroll the child in summer school; or sign up the student for tutoring.

In addition, students with disabilities or limited English proficiency, could be promoted to fourth grade.

This year marked a turning point for the program: Though third-graders have taken literacy tests prior to this year, this was the first time failing third-graders risked being held back.

The law passed this week leaves the testing in place, but allows teams of parents, teachers, principals and reading specialists to decide whether students should advance.

The law initially had passed with strong support in both Republican-controlled chambers of the Legislature. But Fallin stepped in the way with a veto on Tuesday, saying lawmakers were sending Oklahoma back to a “broken system.”

That set up Wednesday’s override votes.

Gene Perry, policy director of the non-partisan Oklahoma Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank in Tulsa, said the Legislature has returned decisions about students’ futures to those most equipped to make them.

“The parents, honestly, and the teachers and the principals, are going to know a lot more about each individual student,” he said.

Earlier this month, education officials released findings that about 8,000 Oklahoma third-graders — or 16 percent  — had scored “unsatisfactory” on the state tests. But Perry and other critics of the program said those numbers were misleading.

About half the failing students had special needs, said Perry, while another quarter were learning English as a second language. Students in those categories can struggle to get exemptions from the 2011 act, he said.

Perry said the test isn’t a simple literacy exercise, but assesses skills such as understanding an argument and grammar.

“Having that decision being put on any one test is problematic,” he said, noting it may be useful in determining reading ability but shouldn’t be the only measure of a student’s success.

Other groups came out in support of the Reading Sufficiency Act — and Fallin’s attempt to salvage it.

The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank in Oklahoma City, saluted the governor’s effort. The group called the Legislature’s effort well-intentioned, noting many supporters are “clearly motivated by compassion,” but it said this week’s bill will “eviscerate” current law.

The group said in a statement: “Gov. Mary Fallin’s tough-love veto shows that she understands that it is anything but compassionate to promote a child to the fourth grade who is reading at a first-grade level or lower. Fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate, who cannot read and comprehend ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ are well on their way to joining the ranks of Oklahoma’s adult illiterates. These are children whose lives will be damaged, many of them unalterably.”

The state Chamber of Commerce also praised Fallin’s “tough stance.”

“When faced with the reality that a percentage of third-grade students can’t read at grade level, the response should not be to reduce the standard so more can be promoted,” said Chamber President and CEO Fred Morgan. “Instead, the response should be to come together as a state and do what is necessary to ensure our third-graders can read.”

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