Senators seek to improve Oklahoma’s abysmal student performance

February 14, 2023

Jonathan Small

In August, Allison D. Garrett, chancellor for the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, warned lawmakers that Oklahoma high-school graduates are largely unprepared for college in English, math, reading, and science.

“Right now, 14 percent of our high-school graduates are coming from high school ready to study at the college level in all four areas—which means 86 percent of them are not,” Garrett said.

At a December legislative hearing, Garrett noted just 10 percent of Oklahoma’s May 2022 graduates tested college ready in all areas of the ACT—less than half the national average—and only 6 percent were prepared in STEM fields.

Against that backdrop, it is encouraging Senate education leaders want to focus the school system on basics—particularly reading.

State Sens. Adam Pugh, Ally Seifried, and Kristen Thompson—three Republicans who serve as chair or vice-chair of key Senate education committees—recently unveiled a package of education measures that focus on unglamorous but important issues.

Oklahoma has steadily lost ground on student literacy—but it doesn’t have to be that way. In 2015, Oklahoma recorded the third-largest gain in the country on fourth-grade reading scores on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests and the state score was above the national average.

Those 2015 improvements were tied largely to passage of a state law that reduced “social promotion” in Oklahoma schools by requiring that students read at least at a second-grade level before advancing to the fourth grade.

Unfortunately, the law was later watered down with exemptions that allowed social promotion to become common again. Reading proficiency quickly plummeted.

By 2022, despite a cumulative total of $50 billion spent on K-12 public schools over the last eight years, just 24 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders tested proficient or better on NAEP tests, a lower share than all but two states.

If Pugh’s legislation not only involves greater funding, but also promotes higher standards along with a focus on proven phonics-based instruction, it could lead to a turnaround in outcomes.

Pugh has also filed legislation to raise high-school graduation requirements. He noted Oklahoma is “one of the few states” that doesn’t have a fourth-year math and science requirement. That is one reason Oklahoma is “falling behind” in terms of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) outcomes, he noted.

Notably, ACT scores declined or were flat for seven of the eight years of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister’s tenure, which also coincided with the collapse in reading proficiency.

Expectations matter. For too long, Oklahoma has sent the implicit message that we don’t expect students to learn to read or do well in academics. The need for change is clear. Senate lawmakers deserve credit for trying to raise the bar.