Ray Carter | October 24, 2022

NAEP tests show academic results plunged under Hofmeister

Ray Carter

When State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister entered office, Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading scores were improving at one of the fastest rates in the nation. But new data from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) show a complete reversal has occurred during Hofmeister’s tenure.

Oklahoma’s outcomes now rank among the worst in the country even at a time when results have fallen nationwide.

Tests administered by NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card, show that student performance in reading and math declined in states across the country between 2019 and 2022, but the decline was worse in Oklahoma than the national average, particularly in fourth -grade reading where Oklahoma’s score declined at nearly three times the national norm.

Every two years, NAEP measures the educational achievement and progress of the nation’s fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and mathematics, utilizing a representative sample of students in each state. NAEP scores are reported on a 0-to-500 scale, and researchers say a 10-point gain or drop on a state’s NAEP score roughly equates to a year of learning.

NAEP’s results indicate that fourth- and eighth-grade students in Oklahoma this year have nearly one year less learning than their counterparts in 2019.

NAEP results from assessments administered from January to March 2022 show that Oklahoma experienced an eight point decline in fourth-grade reading, and a seven point decline in eighth-grade reading, compared to only a three point average national decline in both grades.

In math, Oklahoma NAEP results showed an eight point drop for fourth-graders and a 13 point decline among eighth-grade students. Nationwide, the decline was five points for fourth grade and eight points for eighth grade.

In a statement, Hofmeister, a Democrat, conceded the results were “deeply troubling,” but blamed the decline on the “significant disruptions” created by the COVID pandemic and claimed Oklahoma students “are already turning a corner” based on state testing.

Hofmeister said a “full recovery will take considerable time and resources” and called on the Legislature to further increase spending.

However, the decline in Oklahoma’s NAEP scores, particularly in fourth-grade reading, preceded the pandemic, although the decline has accelerated. State funding for schools has been at record levels since 2018, and since 2020 schools have also received more than $2 billion combined in additional federal COVID funding to address pandemic-related problems. While this year’s state tests showed modest improvement from last year’s results, Oklahoma student performance remained well below pre-pandemic levels.

In light of those trends and the massive amount of funding provided, some officials are pointing to Hofmeister’s oversight as a major culprit in Oklahoma’s bottom-of-the-barrel results on NAEP.

Oklahoma’s fourth-grade students in 2022 had nearly one-and-a-half years less learning than their counterparts in 2015.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, called Oklahoma’s poor performance a “direct result” of Hofmeister’s “failure to improve education in Oklahoma during her eight years as superintendent.”

“Funding has gone up, but test scores have gone down every year she’s been in charge,” Stitt said.

The downward trend seen in Oklahoma’s NAEP scores mirrors recently released results on the ACT test. Although Oklahoma’s average composite ACT score was steady prior to Hofmeister’s election, the average score declined to 20.4 in her first year in office in 2015 and has since plunged to 17.9 on the 2022 test.

During an online event discussing this year’s NAEP results, officials with the national testing organization were not as dismissive as Hofmeister when discussing outcomes—even though many of their comments regarded national figures that were significantly better than Oklahoma’s results.

“We are talking about a really serious erosion of children’s capacities to read and count in the next generation of the workforce,” said Beverly Perdue, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board.

Peggy Carr, commissioner for National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, said the problems identified in this year’s results are not “going to go away” on their own and even a return to pre-pandemic outcomes is insufficient.

“It’s not good just to go back to normal, because normal wasn’t good for some of us, was it?” Carr said. “So we have to make pace and we have to double pace for some students. That is what I hope parents take away from this. It’s serious.”

Oklahoma’s Fourth-Grade Reading Gains Lost

Oklahoma’s decline in fourth-grade reading performance is especially notable because it is in sharp contrast to the trendline that existed when Hofmeister began her first term in 2015.

In 2015, Oklahoma recorded the third-largest gain in the country on fourth-grade reading scores on NAEP and the state score of 222 was above the national average.

Results have since steadily declined throughout Hofmeister’s tenure as state superintendent. By 2019, the last pre-COVID year, Oklahoma’s fourth-grade NAEP reading score had declined to 216. Now the score has fallen to 208, which barely outranks results in the District of Columbia, which is typically among the worst education systems in the nation.

The 14 point decline in Oklahoma’s NAEP reading scores indicates that fourth-grade students in 2022 had nearly one-and-a-half years less learning than their counterparts in 2015.

Today, Oklahoma’s score outranks only three states and the District of Columbia on NAEP’s fourth-grade reading test.

While decline was common across the nation this year, Oklahoma’s performance plummeted at a much faster rate than most states. Of the 29 states that NAEP identified as having significant score changes on the fourth-grade reading test, only two states fell by a larger amount than Oklahoma while three other states experienced identical declines.

Oklahoma performed worse than all but one state in the immediate region on fourth-grade reading and the rate of decline was much steeper in Oklahoma. According to NAEP, Arkansas, Colorado, and Texas did not experience significant score changes in 2022. Among the remaining bordering states, Kansas’ score fell four points, half of Oklahoma’s decline, while Missouri and New Mexico scores each fell five points compared to the eight point decline in Oklahoma.

That contrasts sharply with results in 2015, the first year Hofmeister was in office, when Oklahoma’s score on NAEP’s fourth grade reading test was higher than all but two states in the region. Only Colorado and Missouri had higher scores at that time. Today, only New Mexico performs worse.

The share of students testing at grade level has also declined sharply.

In 2015, the share of Oklahoma students scoring at or above proficient in fourth-grade reading was 33 percent. That was better than 14 states, about the same as 20 states, and below just 17 states.

Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading score barely outranks results in the District of Columbia, which is typically among the worst education systems in the nation.

But in 2022, just 24 percent of Oklahoma fourth-graders tested proficient or better on NAEP tests, a lower share than all but two states. NAEP found that 45 percent of fourth-grade students in Oklahoma tested “below basic,” meaning they are roughly one year below grade level, if not more.

Regionally, proficiency rates were significantly higher in all but one border state, based on 2022 results. The share testing proficient on fourth-grade reading in Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas was 30 percent, while Kansas had 31 percent proficient and Colorado had 38 percent. Only in New Mexico did a lower share of students test proficient in reading than in Oklahoma.

Since 2015, only two states have experienced a greater decline in NAEP fourth-grade reading scores than Oklahoma.

A similar trend is also notable in eighth-grade reading. NAEP showed student outcomes were on the rise from 2009 to 2015 but reversed course and steadily declined throughout Hofmeister’s two-term tenure as superintendent

Similarly, between 2015 and 2022, only four states experienced a larger decline on NAEP’s fourth-grade math test than Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s Ranking Plummets

Oklahoma’s national ranking on NAEP tests has fallen for both grades and both subjects tested by NAEP throughout Hofmeister’s tenure in office, with three of the four tests showing a dramatic decline in national performance.

In fourth-grade reading, Oklahoma has fallen from a 2015 ranking of 29th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia to 46th today.

In eighth-grade reading, Oklahoma has fallen from 32nd in 2015 to 47th today.

In fourth-grade math, Oklahoma ranked 26th in 2015 and now ranks 40th.

In eighth-grade math, Oklahoma ranked 41st in 2015 and has now fallen to 46th in 2022.

Calls for Reform

Oklahoma’s dismaying results are leading to calls for education reform that includes granting parents greater school-choice opportunities for their children.

“The release of Oklahoma’s NAEP scores should be a wakeup call to parents and to the education establishment,” said American Federation for Children-Oklahoma senior advisor Jennifer Carter. “We should be in crisis mode. There is a generation of students that has suffered severe learning loss. That is a national phenomenon, but it has hit Oklahoma students harder than the rest of the country.”

While COVID played a role in poor academic outcomes on NAEP, Carter noted that Oklahoma “fared worse than other states, like California, that had far more stringent COVID restrictions and more prolonged closures.”

NAEP scores suggest that many Oklahoma students would have fared better academically if they had access to private school opportunities.

While decline was the norm across the nation, and particularly in Oklahoma schools, NAEP results showed that private Catholic schools largely maintained their academic performance compared to pre-pandemic years.

Notably, tuition at many Catholic schools is lower than the per-pupil amount spent in public schools. Lara Schuler, senior director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, recently said tuition at Oklahoma’s private Catholic schools ranges “anywhere from $4,800 to $7,000 (or) $7,500.” That’s in contrast to the state’s reported average per-pupil spending of $10,087 in public schools, a figure that excludes facilities acquisition, construction services, debt service, and property expenditures. Once those costs are accounted for, spending exceeds $14,000 per student at 171 of Oklahoma’s public school districts.

“If we are going to reverse these disturbing trends, we need to give parents the ability to choose the schools that best fit their children, to leave schools that are not good fits, and to give them resources to support these choices,” Carter said. “If we do not, our children will find themselves, for the first time ever, less capable of basic reading, writing and arithmetic than the generation before them.”

Officials with NAEP stressed that officials cannot afford to be complacent about results.

When asked if parents should be concerned, Carr was blunt.

“Yes, they should be worried,” Carr responded. “And I hope they get that message.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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