By Steve Olafson
Oklahoma City (Reuters) - The Oklahoma House on Thursday approved a measure that would end the long-held practice of promoting third-graders who can't read to the fourth grade.
The change, approved Thursday by a 59-34 vote in the House, has already been approved by the state Senate. The measure now heads to Governor Mary Fallin, who supports it.
Ending the so-called social promotion of students to the fourth grade is based on the belief that retaining struggling students will benefit them in the long run and that third-graders are at a critical junction.
"That's when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn," said Jaryn Emhof, a spokeswoman for the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.
Florida enacted a similar reform under former Governor Jeb Bush, who now heads the foundation. He visited Oklahoma City recently to encourage support for education reforms Republicans are seeking.
The Oklahoma bill faced opposition from Democrats, who said they were concerned holding third-graders back for reading deficiencies will stigmatize them and harm their self-esteem.
Under the bill, third-graders would have to show on an annual state assessment that they can read at grade level. The students already take the exam, but the legislation would make it a higher-stakes test.
Third-graders who fail to read at grade level could still be promoted to the fourth grade if they have a disability or limited English proficiency, the bill says. They may also be promoted if they perform at a certain level on alternative assessments or if they have received intensive remediation in reading and were previously retained for two years.
Deficient readers would be identified as early as kindergarten so they could receive special attention before third grade.
Indiana and Arizona enacted a similar measure last year, and legislators in Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon are considering doing so this year, Emhof said.
Oklahoma Republicans say the change is necessary because third-graders who can't read are four times more likely not to graduate on time and more likely to end up in prison.
"Our children need it," said Representative Sally Kern, a Republican from Oklahoma City who carried the bill in the House. "The best time to teach them to read is from kindergarten through third grade."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)