Ray Carter | October 27, 2022

Study: Demographics don’t explain Oklahoma’s bad school results

Ray Carter

The newly released results of 2022 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests show that Oklahoma’s outcomes have declined dramatically and rank among the worst in the country.

Oklahoma’s poor outcomes are often dismissed as a byproduct of student demographics, particularly child poverty. But a new study, which examines state NAEP rankings compared to the score expected based on student demographics, finds the opposite. Even when taking into account student demographics, the report shows that Oklahoma still ranks very low nationally and should perform better.

“At both the 4th and 8th grade level in reading, adjusting for Oklahoma’s student demographics would result in an even lower ranking on the NAEP,” said Will Flanders, research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. “According to our analysis, Oklahoma would rank 45th of 50 states plus DC. The NAEP results have served as a wake-up call on the struggles of schools nationwide in the aftermath of COVID-19. Our analysis shows policymakers in states like Oklahoma should be even more concerned and consider significant changes before a generation of kids is lost.”

Every two years, NAEP measures the educational achievement and progress of the nation’s fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and mathematics, utilizing a representative sample of students in each state. NAEP scores are reported on a 0-to-500 scale, and researchers say a 10-point gain or drop on a state’s NAEP score roughly equates to a year of learning.

The 2022 NAEP results show that Oklahoma experienced an eight-point decline in fourth-grade reading compared to the last round of NAEP testing, and a seven-point decline in eighth-grade reading, compared to only a three-point average national decline in both grades.

On NAEP’s fourth-grade reading test, only three states had a lower score than Oklahoma. The same thing held true for eighth-grade reading results.

Flanders’ report notes that some states’ scores are more the product of student demographics than a quality education system. For example, the report notes that students from low-income backgrounds typically have proficiency rates approximately 30-percent lower in English/Language Arts on average than students from wealthier families.

“Demographics matter in assessing NAEP performance,” the report states. “Unfortunately, student characteristics are correlated with student outcomes. States with fewer students in more challenging categories get a ‘free pass’ when demographics aren’t accounted for.”

For example, after controlling for student race, income status, and disability rate, the state of Wisconsin falls from a tie for 18th to 32nd in fourth-grade reading and from a tie for 9th to 19th in eighth-grade reading in the report.

Because Oklahoma ranks among the 10 states with the highest rate of child poverty, one might expect that adjusting for student demographics would significantly improve the state’s ranking. But Oklahoma’s NAEP results are so bad the state remained mired at 45th in Flanders’ study. The gap between what Oklahoma should have scored, based on student demographics, and how the state actually scored on NAEP, was among the largest in the country—on the negative side of the ledger. Only six states fared worse.

Oklahoma’s results contrasted sharply with most other states that have comparable or greater levels of child poverty.

The contrast with Mississippi is especially notable since it has been ranked as having the largest share of children younger than 18 living in poverty among the 50 states. Despite that fact, only 18 states achieved a higher 2022 NAEP score on fourth-grade reading than Mississippi. And after adjusting for student demographics, Flanders found Mississippi achieved the third-best score in the country, measured as the difference between the predicted score based on demographics and the actual result.

Flanders noted that Mississippi has moved from 49th in reading proficiency to 29th since 2013.

Among the nine states that have a larger share of children living in poverty than Oklahoma, six achieved higher NAEP fourth-grade reading scores than Oklahoma: Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

And seven of the nine outperformed Oklahoma after adjusting NAEP results based on student demographics.

Flanders noted that Florida was the nation’s top performer when comparing the predicted score based on student demographics to the actual NAEP outcome on fourth-grade reading.

“Since the era of Jeb Bush, Florida has been a state that has put a major focus on improving education on the public-school side while also embracing competition through school choice,” Flanders’ report stated. “This has continued with the expansion of educational options in recent years. While it cannot be said from this analysis that these policies deserve credit for the state’s ranking, it is certainly something to consider.”

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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