Oklahoma Parents Getting False Impression

May 1, 2009

David V. Anderson

Nearly every state in the country, including Oklahoma, administers achievement tests to public school students in the K-12 years to determine, among other things, who is proficient (at or above grade level) in reading and mathematics skills.

The federal government also administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation's Report Card, which likewise measures the percentages of children who are proficient in these same two areas. NAEP has a long track record of 38 years, establishing itself as the de facto national standard for achievement.

Unfortunately, nearly every state in the country, including Oklahoma, uses achievement tests significantly inconsistent with the NAEP. In fact, in nearly every case the states use tests that produce markedly inflated numbers of children designated proficient or better as compared to the NAEP.

Unlike the state tests, NAEP exam scores are not available for individual school districts or schools. However, in a recent study, I provided a method to convert Oklahoma's state-reported proficiencies to more realistic NAEP-aligned estimates.

For example, Oklahoma claims 88 percent of its students statewide are proficient in reading (that's an average of the 4th grade and 8th grade results), whereas NAEP says only 27 percent of Oklahoma students are proficient. Even in one of the "best" school districts in the state, Oklahoma claims 96 percent of Edmond's students are proficient in reading, but my NAEP scale estimate suggests only 47 percent of Edmond's students are proficient.

Same problem in math: Oklahoma says 79 percent of its students are proficient, while NAEP says it's only 27 percent. Oklahoma claims 96 percent of Edmond's students are proficient, but our NAEP estimate says only 53 percent of Edmond's students are proficient.

By comparing the NAEP scores with the testing regimes used by the various states, we find that most states "inflate" the actual performance levels by practicing a kind of "grade inflation" wherein they place many more children in the proficient or above category than really deserve that designation. The large numbers of Oklahoma students scoring below proficient on the NAEP is a strong indicator that Oklahoma's school systems are conducting large-scale social promotion-usually accompanied by grade inflation.

A U.S. Department of Education report issued in June 2007 showed that Oklahoma is well above the median of the states when it comes to inflation. Oklahoma's reported proficiencies, which are approximately three-fold those of the Oklahoma proficiencies measured by the NAEP, apparently give more comfort to stakeholders in Oklahoma's public schools than if more accurate results had been provided.

It appears that education scholar Kevin Carey, author of the OCPA study Hot Air, was on target in an October 11, 2006 article in The Edmond Sun: Oklahoma parents "are getting a false impression of where their children really stand."

David V. Anderson (Ph.D. in physics, University of California at Davis) is an education fellow at the Ocean State Policy Research Institute.