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Who Are Our Third Graders Who Are Being Held Back?

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Who are the nearly 8,000 Oklahoma 3rd graders who failed Oklahoma's high-stakes reading test? Democratic House Minority Leader Scott Inman notes that 16 percent of the state's elementary students failed the test required for promotion to the 4th grade. In the high-dollar Oklahoma City suburbs, where students go home to $500,000 houses, all but 5 percent may have passed. In his district and in Oklahoma City, where children go home to units where the rent is $500, the failure rate was nearly 30 percent.

Nearly 33 percent of Tulsa students failed the test. In suburban Jenks, less than 9 percent failed.

I mention Jenks because it has excellent schools and it is one of the birthplaces of Oklahoma's Opt Out movement. Jenks Middle School principal, Rob Miller, has been one of the bravest and wisest of educators who has supported parents and introduced policy-makers to the realities faced by so many children.

Having established his integrity, Miller was provided a detailed description of results in the Crutcho School System in Oklahoma County. It had the state's highest failure rate, almost 58 percent. Miller relayed that information in his blog, A View From the Edge.

Crutcho is 100 percent low-income, with more than one-fifth of its tested students being on special education IEPs. Just over one-third live with two parents. Transience is so high that almost half of the students were new to the district this year, and some have already transferred out in the few weeks since the test was taken.

Almost one-sixth of the 3rd grade class were homeless. Almost 5 percent were in court-ordered housing. Almost 5 percent have recently buried their mothers. During the "testing window," one 3rd grader had to be shielded by his brother's body during a "drive-by shooting." Around that time, a Molotov Cocktail was thrown at his house.

The already-huge gap between the affluent and the poor in Oklahoma is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, as the population of English Language Learners is also increasing precipitously. Too many of our poorest parents lack the time to mobilize, and because of our dramatically increased levels of segregation, their plight could have been ignored. But, almost overnight, a grassroots revolt by Oklahomans of all races, ethnic groups, and socio-economic backgrounds, and embracing widely divergent political ideologies, is rolling back high-stakes testing.

High-stakes 3rd grade testing was a part of the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), based on the much more generously funded Florida law touted by Jeb Bush. The punitive portion of the RSA was just one part of a spasm of hugely expensive and risky "reforms" that are all hitting our schools at the same time. Oklahoma's already underfunded schools have had to deal with the new A-F School Report Card (also patterned after Florida's law), test-driven teacher evaluations, and the on-again and off-again Common Core and "Common Core-type" testing regime, as well as equally onerous, federal, test-driven mandates.

This testing mania, I should add, also was a bipartisan gamble. I don't believe any of this teach-to-the-test coercion ever made sense. But, then Oklahoma cut education spending by 22% while schools were grappling with those "Unfunded Nightmares."

We had hoped to amend the Reading Sufficiency Act before the testing anxiety spun out of control, but the legislature did not finally act until this spring's scores arrived. Friday, the State Department of Education -- which had presided over two online testing fiascoes in a row -- bungled the release of test scores.

The Monday after the 2014 test results were released, as districts struggled to inform parents about their children's status, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed an amended RSA and sent it to the Republican Governor Mary Fallin. The bill allows a committee of educators and parents to decide whether a 3rd grader should be retained or not.

Some of the debate got personal. Test-driven reformers are livid. But, as Rep. Inman explained, he and the vast majority of us are tired of being told that if we resist the test and punish regime, then we do not support education. We are tired of being scolded (by elites who have little or no connections with poor children of color and children who struggle in school) and directed to accept the entire agenda of vouchers, statewide charters, and data-driven accountability because they have this abstract belief that testing drives the "civil rights movement of the 21st century."

The family experiences of legislators and parents in the gallery were also revealed. As accounts of children crying over their fears and failures were offered, I saw adults discretely pushing back tears. In Oklahoma, of all places, we are coming together and feeling each in others' distress. (I learned from a Tulsan that the story I heard from my former student is not unique; his daughter is at risk of retention, but because of the teacher shortage she was mostly taught in this crucial year by substitutes.)

During the debate, true believers in test-driven accountability were asked for a plan. How would they help schools remediate the reading deficiencies of children left behind in overcrowded 3rd grade classrooms?

Republican Mike Reynolds replied that it might be true that scores were better in rich exurbs and asked whether studies have been done to determine whether the affluent had an advantage in passing such tests.

But, Reynolds said that the claim that the $8,000 per student Oklahoma spends on education is not enough to overcome poverty is "utter nonsense." He had recently met with private school students and they all could recite the names of Oklahoma's 77 counties and the state's governors. He also noted that the Constitution signaled its intent for the legislature when originally mandating a $42 appropriation for each student's education.

Reynolds declared his plan, "You take the third grade again ... We don't need to do anything else. We let them take the third grade again."

Fortunately, he is now the exception. As Rep. Mike Shelton explained, the amended bill was a "bipartisan Yes-vote." It passed by the veto-proof margin of 89 to six.

Afterwards, conversing with persons with diverse political views, my hopefulness grew even greater. The next step is formulating a new, humane vision of school reform. As we repudiate high-stakes testing, we can now contemplate a collaborative school improvement effort that respects the humanity of all of our children.