Ray Carter | June 9, 2021
Oklahoma’s ‘best’ school fares poorly in national comparison
The Jenks Public Schools district has been identified as the best school in Oklahoma in a national review, despite that same evaluation finding less than half of students at the district read at grade level.
In no other state were less than half of students proficient in reading at a state’s “best” school.
The website Stacker, which describes its mission as the production of “engaging data journalism,” recently released an article that identified what its researchers concluded was the “best school district in every state.” The Jenks district, located in a suburb of Tulsa, was named Oklahoma’s best.
But the Stacker evaluation also stated that just 44 percent of the more than 12,000 students in the district are “reading proficient,” a measurement that typically refers to students who read at grade level.
That finding does not shock Robert Ruiz, executive director of Choice Matters, who works with parents across the state on education issues.
“I had parents comparing their experience with schools in Alaska, schools in Fairfax, Virginia, compared to here, and it’s night and day,” Ruiz said. “The amount of rigor and work the students do in other areas is way beyond what students are doing here in Oklahoma.”
He said that can have significant repercussions for students.
“What happens in other places is that students don’t have as great of GPAs but they’re doing much more rigorous work, so it’s harder for them to get into colleges. But once they’re there, they’re successful,” Ruiz said. “Whereas here we have the opposite problem. We sometimes have students who have good enough GPAs to get into college, but then we find out that more than likely they had some grade inflation going on because when they get into college, they’re not ready, and they have high remediation rates and they have high dropout rates. Just in comparison, being the best in Oklahoma doesn’t mean that you’re even average in the country, anecdotally.”
The Stacker analysis relied on 2021 data from the education website Niche and was based “on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, SAT/ACT scores, college readiness, teacher quality, and graduation rates.”
The gap between Oklahoma and other states was substantial.
In only six states, including Oklahoma, were less than 60 percent of students reading proficient at the state’s top school. In the best schools in 31 states, the Stacker review showed at least 70 percent of students were reading-proficient and the top schools in two other states—Arizona and Colorado—were almost at that level, recording 69 percent reading proficiency.
Matthew Ladner, a national expert on education issues who currently serves as the director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity, cautions that proficiency rates alone may not be a good gauge of school quality.
“It’s generally agreed amongst scholars that study this stuff that academic growth is actually a better measure of school quality than proficiency,” Ladner said. “Because proficiency rates tend to be pretty strongly correlated with socioeconomic status for the students. You can have very ‘high-performing’ schools that really aren’t doing a very good job teaching their kids. That happens quite a bit.”
He noted the Education Opportunity Project at Stanford University tracks data on schools across the nation and allows citizens to learn not only the share of students performing at grade level, but also the learning gains of students during a typical year at a school.
That database currently includes public-school test scores in grades 3–8 from 2008–09 through 2017-2018.
The Education Opportunity Project shows that test scores in Jenks are slightly above the national average while learning rates are roughly the same as the U.S. average. The socioeconomic status of Jenks students is described as “above average.”
However, the Education Opportunity Project’s data also shows that both test scores and learning rates are lower in Jenks than in other districts nationwide that serve students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, providing validity to the parental perceptions Ruiz cited.
The Education Opportunity Project shows that the Broken Arrow district, another Tulsa suburb that serves a higher-income population of students, has a far-worse learning rate that is 15.7 percent below the national average. In contrast, in the Clayton school district, which serves students in rural Pushmataha County whose socioeconomic status is below average, students learn 21 percent more per grade than the national average.
Among the subset of low-income students at each district, the Education Opportunity Project shows that the learning rate among those in the Clayton district is 15.9 percent above the national average, but 19.6 percent below the national figure in Broken Arrow and 5.7 percent below the national average in Jenks.
“For my money, Clayton is a much, much better district than either Jenks or Broken Arrow,” Ladner said. “The real estate in Broken Arrow and Jenks is probably going to be more expensive than it is in Clayton, and the way people typically reckon these things they’ll be looking at simplistic proficiency rates and they’re willing to pay real-estate premiums to live somewhere like Broken Arrow—even though the school system is apparently not that great at teaching kids.”
Corey A. DeAngelis, national director of research for the American Federation for Children, noted that schools across the country do not produce the academic outcomes many citizens expect, pointing to the recent release of 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores that showed just 22 percent of high-school seniors were proficient in science nationwide.
And even when two schools produce similar academic outcomes, he said parents may still have good reasons to strongly prefer one school over the other.
“No matter what metrics we use, there may be a certain dimension of quality that isn’t satisfactory for a particular family in a particular school, and that’s why the money should follow the child to charter schools, private schools, or homeschools, so they can be more likely to find the best fit,” DeAngelis said.
While issues such as funding and class size are often cited as reasons for poor academic performance in a school, the Stacker review showed a significant number of the top schools in other states had larger class sizes or less funding than Jenks.
Stacker showed Jenks had 17 students for every one teacher, but the best schools in nine other states had larger class sizes and still achieved better academic outcomes. The best schools in two other states had identical teacher-student ratios while achieving higher rates of reading proficiency.
Stacker reported that Jenks spent $9,864 per student, which was less than what was spent at the best schools in most states, reflecting typical state-level comparisons.
However, the top schools in five other states spent less per pupil than Jenks while achieving much better levels of reading proficiency—Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Utah.
And, according to Educationdata.org, Jenks’ $9,864 per pupil is far more than the average tuition at a private school in Oklahoma, which averages $5,700. In fact, the per-pupil spending at Jenks is higher than the average private-school tuition in at least 31 other states for which data was available, according to Educationdata.org.
Officials at Jenks Public Schools hailed the school’s top ranking in the Stacker survey.
“Jenks Public Schools is proud to be ranked as the top district in Oklahoma by Stacker and Niche,” said Rob Loeber, director of communications for Jenks Public Schools. “The ranking reflects the efforts of JPS employees who work tirelessly to create exceptional learning opportunities, as well as the outstanding achievements of JPS students. Year after year, Jenks Public Schools continues to innovate and set new standards for public education in Oklahoma. However, the work is never complete. JPS will always foster a culture of continuous improvement and high expectations, while working closely with parents, local businesses, and community partners to support students and set them up for success at every grade level.”
DeAngelis said there are many factors involved in parents’ evaluations of school quality, and those factors vary from household to household, which is why officials should increase school-choice options for all families.
“One size doesn’t fit all, and you can even be in a school that has a 100-percent proficiency rate and it still might not be the right fit for your child, which is a great argument for school choice,” DeAngelis said. “These metrics, whether they’re test scores or facilities, don’t capture everything that is important to a family.”
The Stacker analysis includes similar observations, noting, “Of course, ratings are one thing and experiences another—which is why it’s always smart to do your research and learn about the families, teachers, and students in a given district before basing something as important as a move on a particular school.”
NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to include comment from Jenks Public Schools.
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.