Ray Carter | October 12, 2021

Oklahoma learning loss worse than surrounding states

Ray Carter

While students nationwide experienced learning loss during COVID shutdowns, the decline in Oklahoma was worse than in surrounding states, according to a new report.

“Oklahoma experienced a larger decline in student-assessment scores for all shown subject areas and grades than the regional average,” said Brad Ward, program evaluator for the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT).

LOFT’s report, presented to a joint meeting of state House and Senate education committees, is the first to provide a comparison between Oklahoma and other states in the region.

The statewide results of Oklahoma tests, which were administered in the spring for the first time since 2019, showed significant learning loss occurred in Oklahoma during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated closure of on-site learning in districts.

Fewer than one in four Oklahoma students performed at grade level or better in English Language Arts in spring 2021. The share performing at grade level was even lower in math, and fewer than 30 percent of students were at grade level in science.

The decline in Oklahoma was much larger than the decline seen in other states, based on those states’ testing programs.

In their report, LOFT officials quantified how much instruction time was lost to COVID-19 shutdowns in Oklahoma in spring 2020, and examined how Oklahoma’s academic results on state tests compared to the results of state tests in Texas, Colorado, Arkansas, and Missouri.

“Oklahoma students traditionally receive six hours of instruction per school day and, based on the instruction schedule provided, LOFT’s analysis reveals that Oklahoma students lost an average four hours of instruction time per day during remote instruction in COVID-19,” Ward said.

Overall, Oklahoma’s public-school students lost an estimated 222 hours of instruction on average when schools transitioned to remote learning at the end of the 2019-2020 academic school year, or about 28 school days of instruction.

Loss of instruction was greatest for students in pre-kindergarten to second grade, Ward said. Students in kindergarten lost 262 hours of instruction, about 33 days worth, while those in first and second grades lost 242 hours of instruction, the equivalent of 30 days of lost instruction.

LOFT officials noted that Oklahoma’s academic outcomes were not great even before COVID shutdowns.

“It seems that the trend is as we give more money, scores and academic outcomes are declining.” —State Rep. Mark Vancuren (R-Owasso)

“Historical data on various student metrics confirms that Oklahoma was enduring significant challenges with learning loss prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ward said. “This is reflected in kindergarten through third-grade reading-sufficiency rates, high-school ACT composite scores, and first-time (college) freshman remedial-courses rates.”

Ward noted that 2020 was the first year in which 40 percent of all Oklahoma public-school students were considered “at risk” based on reading scores at the start of the school year—and that preceded the COVID shutdowns and subsequent learning loss.

According to that 2020 data, 22 out of every 50 students in kindergarten through third grade were at risk in reading, or 44 percent. By 2024, LOFT projects half of students will be at risk.

“The starting line for Oklahoma students is moving further behind as time progresses,” Ward said.

LOFT officials also estimate the negative impacts of COVID learning loss will be felt for “a minimum” of five years.

The state composite score for Oklahoma students taking the ACT college-admission test has also “been in a linear decline since 2015, reaching a 13-year low in 2021 with an 18 composite score,” Ward said.

LOFT projects Oklahoma students’ ACT scores will continue to decline to a composite score of 17—and officials suggested it could get worse.

“Once again, it should be noted that this forecast does not take into account the shift to remote instruction or the external variables brought on by COVID-19,” Ward said.

Over the last 20 years, an average of 37 percent of first-time college freshmen in Oklahoma have had to retake high-school content upon entering college through remedial courses, although numbers have improved somewhat since 2017.

Increased funding for the K-12 school system has not had a notable impact in terms of better preparing students for college, according to LOFT.

“Despite increases in common-education appropriations, the percentage of first-time college freshmen enrolled in remediation courses has remained consistent over time until recently,” Ward said.

That finding caught some lawmakers off guard.

“It seems that the trend is as we give more money, scores and academic outcomes are declining,” said Rep. Mark Vancuren, R-Owasso. “Am I seeing that correctly?”

“There is clearly a negative correlation between increased spending and academic outcomes for this specific academic benchmark,” Ward said. “That is correct. That is an accurate assessment.”

Others said constituents have begun to question whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth from increased school funding.

Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, said business and community leaders in his district complain that “they’ve seen massive amounts of money used for years” but that academic improvement “numbers are not showing it.”

“While funding is good and increasing funding to public education is important,” said Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew, “the graph earlier showed that funding alone isn’t fixing our problem.”

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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