Tulsa learning loss worst in state—and stands out nationwide
Ray Carter | August 21, 2023
Between 2019 and 2022, student learning loss in Tulsa Public Schools may have been the worst in Oklahoma, based on data compiled by the Education Recovery Scorecard, a collaboration between the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University and Stanford University’s Educational Opportunity Project.
The Education Recovery Scorecard tracks learning loss from 2019 to 2022 at many districts across the United States based on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests.
Because the NAEP is administered to students in all 50 states, it provides an apples-to-apples comparison of students’ results in each state.
In Tulsa Public Schools, the Education Recovery Scorecard found that students lost 1.34 grade levels in reading from 2019 to 2022. That was the greatest level of reading learning loss recorded among Oklahoma schools tracked by the Education Recovery Scorecard.
The scorecard also found that Tulsa students lost 1.3 grade levels of learning in math from 2019 to 2022. That was also the greatest level of learning loss among all Oklahoma districts tracked by the Education Recovery Scorecard, aside from Oklahoma City Public Schools, where students also lost 1.3 years of math learning.
Data suggest poverty does not explain Tulsa results
In Tulsa, 82.2 percent of students are on the free/reduced lunch program, a rough measure of poverty, according to the scorecard.
In many instances, school officials have argued that poor academic results are an indirect measurement of poverty rather than school performance.
However, data compiled by the Education Recovery Scorecard shows other Oklahoma schools with high levels of student poverty did not experience learning loss at the extreme levels that occurred in the Tulsa district.
In fact, one district with a higher level of student poverty significantly outperformed Tulsa when it came to mitigating learning loss during COVID.
Other districts with high levels of student poverty experienced significant learning loss, but the level of learning loss in those districts was often far less than the level seen in Tulsa schools. In several instances, Oklahoma schools with high levels of student poverty had grade-level learning loss that was half or even one-third the level seen in Tulsa schools.
In Checotah, 99.2 percent of students are on the free/reduced lunch program. That district experienced no reading loss between 2019 and 2022, based on NAEP data used by the Education Recovery Scorecard. Instead, Checotah students gained 0.49 grade levels of reading learning during that time. Students in the Checotah district did lose 0.25 grade levels learning in math during that time, but that was far lower than the learning loss that occurred in Tulsa Public Schools.
Other districts with a high share of lower-income students all experienced learning loss, but the degree of learning loss was less—and often much less—than what occurred in Tulsa schools.
For example, 82.5 percent of students in the Muskogee district are on the free/reduced lunch program. While that district had significant learning loss from 2019 to 2022—0.73 grade levels lost in reading and 0.8 in math—the district still outperformed Tulsa schools in measurement of learning loss.
In Wagoner, 78.4 percent of students are on the free/reduced lunch program. That district lost 0.73 grade levels of reading learning and 0.46 grade levels in math.
In Sallisaw, 75.9 percent of students are low income, but the district lost just 0.4 grave levels in reading and 0.73 grade levels in math.
In Tahlequah, 75.5 percent of students are low income. Students there lost 0.67 grades in reading and 0.71 grade levels in math.
In Guymon, 73.8 percent of students are low income. That district lost 0.55 grade levels in reading learning and 0.22 grade levels in math.
In Chickasha, 73.1 percent of students are on the free/reduced lunch program, but that district recorded only a 0.35-grade-level loss in reading between 2019 and 2022 and 0.38 grade levels in math.
In Cleveland, 67.2 percent of students are on the free/reduced lunch program. That district lost a half-grade level of learning in reading and 0.62 grade levels in math.
In Guthrie, 63.3 percent of students are low income, but that district experienced just 0.3 of a grade-level loss in reading from 2019 to 2022 and 0.61 grade levels in math.
Learning loss in Tulsa worse than in regional counterparts
The amount of learning loss experienced by Tulsa students was not only far above the norm in Oklahoma schools, but also exceeded the amount of learning loss that occurred in urban-core school districts in neighboring states that serve a high share of low-income students.
In the Little Rock School District in Arkansas, students endured 0.78 grade levels of learning loss in math. (Reading data was not available for Little Rock.) Data shows that 77.5 percent of Little Rock students are from low-income backgrounds.
In the Dallas Independent School District in Texas, students had almost no loss in reading – losing just 0.08 of a grade level. In math, Dallas students lost 0.49 grade levels of learning from 2019 to 2022. Data show 87.6 percent of students in Dallas are considered low income.
In the Houston Independent School District in Texas, students gained 0.11 grades in reading while losing a half-grade in math learning. More than three in four students in that district—76.3 percent—are low income.
In Wichita, Kansas, students lost 0.75 grade levels in reading and 0.96 in math. Three in four students in that district are considered low income.
National comparisons no better
Casting a wider net that includes some of the nation’s most well-known urban districts shows that students in those districts experienced a lower degree of learning loss than what occurred in the Tulsa district.
In Chicago, Illinois, students lost 0.2 grades in reading and 0.55 grades in math. Data show 83.5 percent of Chicago students are low income.
In Detroit, Michigan, students lost 1.03 grades of learning in reading and 0.9 grades in math. Eighty-nine percent of Detroit students are low income.
In Los Angeles, California, students experienced no learning loss in reading and 0.39 grades lost in math. Most students in that district—78.7 percent—are from low-income families.
In the Shelby County (Memphis) district in Tennessee, students lost 0.69 grades of learning in reading and 1.09 grades in math. In that district, 82.6 percent of students are low income.
Tulsa’s academic outcomes a focus in debate over accreditation
In recent weeks, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has criticized the extremely poor academic outcomes produced by Tulsa schools and indicated the district could have its state accreditation lowered or even face a state takeover.
In a video recently posted on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, Walters noted there are 15 elementary schools in the Tulsa district where less than 5% of students test proficient in reading.
Walters also released a video titled, “The Real Crisis of Tulsa’s Failing Schools.” According to that video, out of the 5,000 largest public-school districts in the United States, Tulsa Public Schools ranks 4,982nd in reading with students 3.5 grades levels behind on average. The video also stated that Tulsa students are 3.6 grades behind in math, on average.
Tulsa school officials have loudly objected to criticism of the district and oppose any potential state takeover.
The State Board of Education is expected to consider Tulsa Public Schools’ accreditation when the group meets on Thursday, Aug. 24.
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.