On reading, Oklahoma working to catch up to Mississippi

Ray Carter | October 30, 2023

When it comes to student demographics, such as children living in poverty, Oklahoma and Mississippi are often comparable.

But the two states are very different when it comes to students’ ability to read—with Mississippi pulling away from Oklahoma.

State officials are now trying to change that trend and close the gap, and some see Mississippi as a template.

“Are we modeling after Mississippi?” state Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, asked officials with the Oklahoma State Department of Education at a recent legislative study. “Mississippi had such a great turnaround. It’s just been amazing to see that. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

“We’re trying to head that direction, but I don’t know that we have the capacity to do exactly what they’re doing at this time, because they’ve been in the process of this for over 10 years,” responded Melissa Ahlgrim, program director of literacy policy and programs at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

In 2011, nearly 80% of Mississippi fourth graders scored below proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading exam.

Those poor results prompted officials in that state to implement several measures to improve student literacy, including a systematic approach to reading instruction that included explicit instruction in the major components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

Mississippi also funded professional development efforts to ensure teachers were prepared to teach reading using those components.

And Mississippi implemented a law that prevented students from being socially promoted out of third grade if they are not reading at a specific level.

Those policies have had a dramatic impact over time.

From 2011 to 2019, Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading score on the NAEP exam increased the equivalent of a full grade level. Mississippi has moved from ranking 49th in the nation for student literacy in 2013 to 21st in 2022.

Oklahoma adopted similar policies in 2011, including a law that prevented social promotion. That policy generated significant improvement during the tenure of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, who served from 2011 to January 2015.

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

But lawmakers watered down the state’s third-grade reading law and made social promotion easier, and reading was generally de-emphasized for several years.

During the tenure of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who served from 2015 to January of this year, Oklahoma’s fourth grade NAEP reading score declined significantly. The 14-point decline in Oklahoma’s NAEP reading score indicates that fourth-grade students in 2022 had nearly one-and-a-half years less learning than their counterparts in 2015.

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

Officials warn it may take years of effort for Oklahoma to regain the ground lost since 2015.

One major challenge, identified in a recent legislative study conducted by the Oklahoma Senate, is that many Oklahoma teachers are not trained in the science of reading, meaning the colleges of education that train Oklahoma teachers do not properly prepare them to teach reading using phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

When the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed teacher-training programs at 12 Oklahoma colleges and universities, none of the programs received an A, meaning none instructed future teachers on all five components of reading.

The council found five Oklahoma teacher-degree programs even taught future educators to use multiple techniques that are contrary to research-based practices, including techniques that can inhibit reading progress.

Only two programs were found to provide sufficient information to future teachers on phonemic awareness (Cameron University and Northwestern Oklahoma State University).

State-funded literacy coaches, who teach teachers proper literacy instruction techniques, have been used by Mississippi to overcome that obstacle, and Oklahoma is building out its own network of instructional coaches.

But Ahlgrim noted that Mississippi has provided reading coaches across that state for roughly a decade now. In contrast, Oklahoma’s program is currently small. She told lawmakers in the House Common Education Committee that Oklahoma’s program currently funds the hiring of 10 literacy specialists and 10 regional coordinators. She said the 10 literacy specialists will work with four schools apiece, or two per week, while the coordinators will work with two schools apiece.

Overall, the program will target about 50 schools statewide this year.

“I would rather start small and do well than have them in a different school every single day and have everything come crashing down on us,” Ahlgrim said.

There is much work to be done if Oklahoma’s reading outcomes are to move from their current bottom-rung status, officials told House lawmakers.

“The data here, it’s not painting a bright picture here,” said Megan Oftedal, executive director of the Oklahoma Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. “We have only one in four students right now who are reading proficient or better.”

Oklahoma’s outcomes are “significantly below the national average,” she noted.

“We really have a large majority of students who are not performing at grade level or better,” Oftedal said.

If Oklahoma does not improve student-literacy rates, state officials will likely see other negative social trends become worse over time.

“When students aren’t able to read by third grade, they are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma,” Oftedal said. “Their reading ability, in this way, is really indicative of their general life trajectory. So, bottom line here: If you aren’t reading by the end of third grade, the odds are you’re going to have struggles for the rest of your life in many aspects of your life.”

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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