Ray Carter | January 18, 2023

Senate leaders call for reading focus, graduation standards

Ray Carter

Education leaders in the Oklahoma Senate have unveiled a wide-ranging agenda that includes greater focus on childhood literacy and raising Oklahoma’s graduation standards to meet national norms.

“Ultimately, the goal is to provide better educational outcomes for kids,” said state Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican who chairs both the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Senate Bill 527 will change the student weights used in the state school funding formula to direct a larger share of funds to grades three and below to boost reading instruction.

“Our goal should be 100 percent literacy for fourth graders,” Pugh said. “We should be willing to accept nothing less.”

State Sen. Ally Seifried, a Claremore Republican who is vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said SB 527 sets an “aggressive” but necessary goal.

“We need to give our students in Oklahoma the gift of being able to read and read well,” Seifried said.

In 2015, Oklahoma recorded the third-largest gain in the country on fourth-grade reading scores on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests and the state score was above the national average.

But reading proficiency plummeted throughout the tenure of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, whose final term ended this month.

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 and roughly comparable to 20 other states. But by 2022, just 24 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders tested proficient or better on NAEP tests, a lower share than all but two states.

The decline in Oklahoma’s NAEP reading scores indicated 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.

Seifried noted there is “a direct correlation” between illiteracy and adult poverty.

“Our Oklahoma students deserve the best,” Seifried said. “We haven’t been getting there, and it’s a disservice.”

“Learning how to read and write and early childhood literacy is the bedrock of everything else that a child will do as they matriculate through the education system,” Pugh said.

Pugh has also filed legislation, Senate Bill 520, to raise high-school graduation requirements.

“We’re one of the few states that doesn’t have a fourth-year math-and-science requirement for kids who are on a college track,” Pugh said, adding that Oklahoma is “falling behind” in terms of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) outcomes.

He noted the fourth-year requirement is common in nations across the globe.

“We have got to make a concerted effort to make sure kids are ready to enter a very technologically advanced career field when they graduate and make sure they are prepared when they step onto a college campus for the first time and that they don’t have to spend their first semester or two being remediated,” Pugh said.

The Edmond lawmaker’s plan also includes legislation to boost teacher pay. Senate Bill 482 would set a starting salary of $40,000 for a first-year teacher (a raise of $3,000) and provides for larger pay increases for veteran teachers, running as high as a $6,000 pay raise for teachers with 15 years’ experience or more. That proposal will cost $241 million.

Other measures filed by Pugh would pay for the tuition and fees of college students who major in education and work for four years as a teacher in a Title I school (schools with high rates of poverty), provide $500 stipends for mentor teachers, create a multistate teacher licensure compact, provide paid maternity leave for teachers, fund school safety grants, change charter-school oversight, and reform the state’s school-funding formula so ad valorem dollars account for previous year actuals and not projected expenses.

The combined cost of all the proposed bills would be $541 million.

State Sen. Kristen Thompson, an Edmond Republican who is vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and serving her first year in office, said she was “really surprised to find out that there is no strategic plan for education in Oklahoma” and said the package outlined by Pugh provides a plan of action.

“Having direction to get us out of last place, I think, is always good,” Thompson said.

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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