State testing outcomes prompt question: When will results improve?

November 27, 2019

Ray Carter

Despite a dramatic increase in school funding and the adoption of what state officials say are higher academic standards, Oklahoma students’ academic performance on state tests mostly remained stagnant in 2019 or lower than in 2017.

That has some officials asking how long Oklahomans will have to wait to see promised results.

“When do you expect the curve to shift back upward and how long do you anticipate that taking?” asked State Board of Education member Jennifer Monies during that group’s monthly meeting.

“Eventually,” replied State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

Hofmeister said it often takes five to seven years for schools to adjust to new standards and boost student outcomes, but that the process “can happen much more rapidly if districts have better information and are using the curriculum frameworks.”

“So the district says, ‘You know what? We understand those standards are here, but we’re teaching what we want,’ they’re never going to perform the way they could if they would actually teach the standards,” Hofmeister said. “So a lot of it is up to districts.”

The State Board of Education reviewed the results of the most recent round of state tests. Student performance was generally down, despite the infusion of $638 million more into the school system over the last two legislative sessions, an increase of 20 percent in state-appropriated funding.

In no grade tested did a majority of students score proficient. Department of Education officials said that a student who scored proficient or better is on track for graduating high school ready for career or college. Hofmeister noted that 39 percent of Oklahoma college-bound students had to retake a high-school class before they could begin college-credit bearing courses, and called the career-and-college ready metric “a really important framework as we go forward.”

In grades three through eight, the share of students scoring proficient or advanced in math began at 43 percent in third grade and steadily declined to 23 percent in eighth grade. Those scores were either unchanged or lower than what was achieved in 2017.

In grades three through eight in English Language Arts, the share scoring proficient or advanced went no higher than 39 percent in third grade and as low as 29 percent in seventh grade. Again, scores have been on a general downward trend since 2017, with the exception of third grade scores, which were slightly higher than two years ago.

“Grades four and five—four especially—are points for concern,” said Christina McCreary, assistant executive director of assessment at the Oklahoma Department of Education. “We do have researchers who are delving into that more thoroughly, so we can pinpoint exactly what the issue is so that we can better provide districts and teachers the resources and the guidance they need to improve their scores.”

She also said there “definitely are some concerns there with grades six and eight.”

In science in grades five and eight (the only two grades tested in that subject), just 39 percent and 40 percent of students, respectively, were proficient or better. And again, those scores were either unchanged or down from two years prior.

In grade 11, just 33 percent of students were proficient in English Language Arts, while 24 percent were proficient in math. Just 24 percent were proficient in science.

A larger share of children in the third and fourth grade scored proficient than their counterparts in middle school. Department officials attributed that to the younger students spending more of their public school years learning under the same set of academic standards, unlike their older counterparts.

What is being done to help students in the seventh or eighth grade who are well behind on college-and-career readiness?

“That would really be in the purview of the individual districts to make those plans to make sure that gaps are covered,” McCreary said.

One board member said schools are struggling to teach to the new standards.

“In my work, I meet with superintendents and the constant pain point that I heard mentioned is we need more resources that are aligned to the new standards,” said State School Board member Carlisha Bradley. “And so that’s been a huge topic of conversation: ‘I can’t teach standards if I don’t have resources that supplement the standards I’m supposed to teach to train my teachers.’”

McCreary said 79 percent of Oklahoma third grade students read at grade level, according to Reading Sufficiency Act standards. But the contrast between those results and the results on the English Language Arts test prompted concern.

“Can you talk about the difference between 79 percent meeting RSA in third grade, and then third-grade ELA is right around 40 percent?” Monies said. “And I get that they’re different tests, but to me it’s like we’re saying that 80 percent of our kids can read at the third-grade level but then we’re saying 40 percent of them can’t pass this.”

“Those students are not on track for success at the college-and-career level without the need for remediation,” McCreary said. “So we have a number of third graders who are reading on grade level, but the trajectory that they’re on means that they may have to take some remedial coursework when they get to college.”

“The science of reading is not being taught in every classroom,” Hofmeister said. “There are veteran teachers who believe they are teaching reading correctly, and actually some of the methods are compounding the difficulties with children who struggle to read. And they’re doing that without realizing it.”

She said greater training is needed.

“It’s not going to change if we keep doing the same thing we’ve always done,” Hofmeister said.