Oklahoma academic decline prompts concern, calls for change

November 7, 2019

Ray Carter

Results from two national measures of academic performance— the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the ACT college-readiness exam—show continued decline in Oklahoma schools’ academic outcomes.

Those results, coming at a time when Oklahoma already ranks in the bottom tier of states on measures of academic performance, are prompting concern and calls for reform.

“You tie in the NAEP and the ACT scores, and it really paints a troubling picture,” said Ryan Walters, executive director of Oklahoma Achieves, an arm of The State Chamber that focuses on education and workforce development. “You’ve got the fourth grade scores, which are disappointing. You’ve got the eighth grade scores—reading particularly disappointing. And then you’ve got the ACT, a huge drop in the math scores. So then you’ve got this holistic picture, that it’s not just pre-K through third grade. It’s not just some of these eighth grade scores. It’s indicative of our entire education system that is not producing the outcomes that we’d like to see.”

“Any decline in scores is incredibly troubling and something that we as a state need to take note of and ask, ‘Why?’” said Jennifer Monies, a member of the State Board of Education.

“Bottom line is we’re still at the bottom, and it’s still a challenge,” said Drew Dugan, vice president of education for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber.

On NAEP, often called the nation’s report card, Oklahoma student scores declined in fourth and eighth grade reading, were unchanged in fourth grade math, and improved slightly in eight grade math (although by an amount considered statistically insignificant).

In reading and math, in both the fourth and eighth grades, NAEP reports that Oklahoma’s composite score is “significantly lower” than the national score.

On the ACT exam, Oklahoma student scores declined in every subject, and 46 percent of students failed to meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks in any of the subjects tested.

Over the last two sessions, state lawmakers have increased K-12 school appropriations by 20 percent. Yet there’s little sign of positive impact on academic outcomes so far and most trends have continued on a downward slide.

Since 2017, all 11th grade students in Oklahoma have been required to take the ACT or SAT. In 2017, Oklahoma students achieved an average composite score of 19.4. In 2019, the average composite score fell to 18.9. Among the 15 states that require all public-school students to take the ACT, only three have lower composite scores than Oklahoma.

The decline in fourth grade reading scores on NAEP, in particular, grabbed the attention of business and civic leaders.

“We see a trend over the last four years of this downward trajectory, and particularly the fourth grade reading scores really stand out to us,” Walters said. “We’re very interested in seeing some reforms, along the way, to help improve this.”

“One of the big things is we need to continue to expect them to have higher reading scores,” Dugan said.

A document produced by Oklahoma Achieves notes Oklahoma’s fourth grade reading NAEP score was slightly above the national average as recently as 2015, and Oklahoma students had “improved by almost one grade level” between 2002 and 2015. But in 2017, the fourth grade reading score plummeted, and declined again in 2019. (NAEP is administered every two years.)

At a recent meeting of the State Board of Education, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister blamed Oklahoma’s poor reading scores on poor teaching practices.

“There is no reason a child cannot read before they are in third grade, but our teachers have to teach based on the science of reading, and that is not happening across this state,” Hofmeister said. “It is happening in pockets.”

She said more training is needed for emergency certified teachers who have just entered the profession, but also for veteran teachers.

“No child needs to struggle to read if we are teaching them properly,” Hofmeister said.

Other officials say the decline can also be tied in part to policy changes. Dugan said Oklahoma’s third-grade reading law, which requires retention for those scoring two grade levels behind, was “kind of a harsh thing,” but has “become a pretty big litmus test.”

Implementation of the third-grade reading law, sometimes referred to as the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), was associated with improvement in student performance. Oklahoma’s NAEP scores on fourth grade reading surged dramatically between 2011 and 2015. However, the law has since been revised to allow more students to be promoted to the fourth grade without meeting literacy standards.

“They made lots of exceptions—too many exceptions, we think,” Dugan said.

As Oklahoma’s reading law was revised, NAEP reading scores declined. Notably, the only state in 2019 to achieve marked improvement in fourth grade reading was Mississippi, which has implemented a third-grade reading law similar to Oklahoma’s original law.

“Early literacy is crucial and, of course, we see what Mississippi has done, which is similar to our initial RSA bill, and their successes,” Walters said. “What we’ve seen is a downward trajectory ever since we’ve been tweaking that legislation. We think there’s an absolute correlation there between those two things.”

Declining ACT math scores are also alarming to business leaders.

“When you look at the technical jobs that are out there, the aerospace jobs that are out there, and how much of today’s workforce requires an understanding of STEM fields, to see one of the biggest drops in the country in math is very troubling,” Walters said. “When you look at these workforce numbers, and you look at the jobs that are available, if Oklahoma students aren’t proficient in math and don’t meet those ACT benchmarks, it’s going to be very difficult to fill those jobs.”

Just 23 percent of Oklahoma students met the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in math and just 24 percent met the benchmark in science.

In October, Swedish aerospace company Saab cited workforce concerns when it declined to build a new jet in Oklahoma City. Instead, that work and the associated $37 million facility investment went to West Lafayette, Indiana.

Dugan noted the Oklahoma City chamber supported the teacher pay raises approved over the past two years, but believes reform should be part of any future package.

“We would really like to see, going forward, there be a long-term strategy that if we’re going to continue to increase teachers’ salaries we need to somehow get back to tying it to performance,” Dugan said.

He said the chamber supports strategic, long-term planning for Oklahoma schools that shows “how we’re going to improve pay as well as performance.”

“We need higher expectations across the board,” Dugan said.

While it may be unrealistic to expect dramatic, immediate improvement in Oklahoma’s academic performance, officials warn that state leaders cannot afford to be complacent, either, particularly in the face of decline.

“We keep hearing that we need to give it time, but kids who are in classrooms right now don’t have time to waste,” Monies said. “We’re doing a lot in this state to align our standards and our testing with national college-and-career readiness standards, which is great, but we haven’t seen the results match up to that yet. While we’re hopeful that eventually the scores will start to tick up, whenever we see our scores decline we need to have a gut check and ask, ‘Are we doing the right things? Do we need to do more?’”

Walters, a longtime public school teacher, stressed that there are real-life consequences for children in school today who do not receive a quality education.

“These are people; they’re not just statistics,” Walters said. “These are young people that are moving through the system. We’re looking at these benchmark scores on the ACT, we’re looking at fourth and eighth grade reading and math, and we’re going, ‘They’re not ready, and now they’re gone, and we’ve missed that opportunity with them.’ It’s heartbreaking.”