State board of education stresses need for testing

December 17, 2020

Ray Carter

Members of the State Board of Education have voted to suspend school A-F report cards for another year, but will require schools to administer state tests to provide some level of public reporting on how students have fared throughout COVID-19 shutdowns and forced virtual education.

The suspension of A-F report cards was justified, in part, on the lack of state testing last spring, which was suspended because of the pandemic.

Board members said it is crucial to obtain accurate measurement of student progress, both for parents and state officials who must make decisions on how to devote education resources.

“I think it’s critically important that we know where our students are,” said board member Jennifer Monies. “A lot of students have not received the same level of education for almost a year.”

She noted there are anecdotal reports that many students have “fallen behind” since March.

“Are students who are typically in kind of lower-performing environments, are they falling even further behind?” Monies said.

Board member Carlisha Bradley said this year’s state tests provide “an opportunity to get a pulse on where students are.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said some districts have performed no comparable benchmark testing this year, making state tests a rare public measurement of a child’s current level of educational attainment for many parents.

“Not all of our schools have an interim assessment, or a benchmark, or formative assessments,” Hofmeister said. “For some, the summative assessment in the spring is the only indicator.”

In some instances, board members were informed that districts have actively opposed testing because they fear the results will not be viewed favorably by the public.

“Often, we hear from schools, ‘We don’t want to assess our kids because we shouldn’t be held accountable this year because of all the things that are happening,’” said Maria Harris, deputy superintendent of assessment & accountability at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Parents have voiced concern over the lack of transparency from some districts.

At a recent rally held by Parent Voice Oklahoma, Kandice Jeske, a mother of three, said her local district provided her children’s benchmark test results only after she requested them. The district did not make that information readily available to parents.

Jeske learned her children had gone from scoring in the 90th percentile—close to the “gifted and talented” level—to the 34th percentile. She soon opted to transfer her children to another district that provided full-time, in-person instruction.

“This week I’ve been hearing calls from districts across the state to do away with the state testing,” Jeske said. “I don’t understand how we can afford to lose another year of data. We left last year not knowing where our third grader was. It’s literally a lost class. We have no idea where they were. We must remember that our assessments do not measure how our students are doing. Instead, they measure how our schools are doing. And we deserve to know: How are our schools doing?”

In March, Hofmeister announced the state would seek a federal waiver to suspend both state testing for the 2019-20 school year and school report cards due to COVID-19 challenges.

Hofmeister also declined to issue report cards in 2017, citing changes to state academic standards as justification.

The most recent A-F school report cards showed that for every Oklahoma school that achieved a higher grade compared to the prior year, more than two schools saw their state letter grade fall. Of 1,494 school sites, 234 received a higher grade than the prior year, while 493 received a lower grade.

Just 54 school sites in Oklahoma received an overall grade of A, compared to 111 that received an F. Another 292 received a B, 579 received a C, and 458 received a D.

The board’s decision to again suspend A-F school report cards for the 2020-2021 school year means another version will not be provided until the 2021-2022 school year.

However, board members said state tests will help provide a baseline for measuring school performance and provide valuable information to parents and school officials.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires each state to administer academic assessments in English language arts, mathematics and science in grades 3-8 as well as once in high school.

State testing results from 2019, the most recent available, showed that that academic achievement was lower in 2019 than in 2017, despite lawmakers having increased K-12 school appropriations by a combined 20 percent over two years. In no grade or subject tested did a majority of Oklahoma students score proficient (meaning at grade level).

A downward trend was noted in math and fifth-grade science and a “steeper downward trend in English language arts (ELA) performance from 2017 to 2019.” Multi-year tracking of some student cohort groups showed “a meaningful decrease in both ELA and math performance.”

Most experts believe learning loss has since accelerated for many students during the spring shutdown and in districts that have remained closed for full-time, in-person instruction throughout most of the current school year.

Board member Estela Hernandez noted that problem and expressed concern that parents will be deprived of meaningful data if A-F school report cards are delayed another year.

“If they were falling through the cracks before, now it’s even greater,” Hernandez said.

She was not the only board member who expressed such concern.

“The public is also an important representative here, because of the fact that it’s their students, it’s their tax money, their ad valorem tax money,” said board member William Flanagan. “They want to know (how) our public schools are operating.”

He said it could appear that officials are only “kicking that can down the road” by delaying A-F school report cards.

While parents will not have an A-F school report card to evaluate their local district this year, they will be able to make evaluations based on the data generated by this year’s state testing, officials noted.

State tests results are publicly released for each district in reports that show the percentage of students that tested at grade level, above grade level, below grade level, and far below grade level, for all grades and subjects tested.

Board members also said that data should be publicized in a format that allows parents to compare “peer” districts of similar size and demographics.