FOR years, Oklahomans were asked to celebrate state testing results, but avert their eyes when National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores were released.
“It used to be that we'd proclaim that 74 percent of all of our fourth-graders were already on grade level,” state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said in a recent meeting with The Oklahoman's editorial board. “However, the NAEP showed that no more than about 23 percent were reading on grade level.”
Instead of denying reality, education officials are raising standards on state tests. Student results are therefore moving closer to those of the respected NAEP. That will impact schools' A-F grades as well. This doesn't mean students or schools are doing worse this year; it means Oklahoma officials are being more accurate in their reporting. That's a crucial step toward truly improving student outcomes — even if facing reality in such stark terms is jarring.
At the end of October, the state Board of Education will approve the A-F grades for Oklahoma schools. The introduction of higher standards on state tests for fifth- and eighth-grade science and writing, as well as high school biology, means students are now less likely to be found “proficient” in those subjects, which also lowers schools' A-F grades.
Schools' grades are also affected by changes Oklahoma lawmakers approved to the A-F formula this year in response to administrators' requests. The combination of higher standards in testing and revisions to the school-grade calculation is expected to cause more schools to get an F or D on their report cards. Fewer schools will get an A; many more will be in the B and C categories.
Citizens and school officials should embrace these results and use them for honest assessment and strategic planning moving forward. The previous testing system, which wildly inflated success rates, did children no good. That's why the move to higher standards was embraced by a wide range of officials, including University of Oklahoma President David Boren, a Democrat and former governor. Educators should use the data generated by state tests and the A-F school grades to inform teaching strategies and benefit students.
Yet some school officials apparently prefer living in denial and instead embrace bizarre conspiracy theories. Bill Nelson, assistant superintendent of Byng schools, recently told The Ada News, “There's a move to gut and eliminate public schools, and Ms. Barresi is certainly at the forefront of that.”
This year Barresi sought a $289 million budget increase for public schools; she said next year's budget request will also seek an increase. That's an odd way to “gut and eliminate” public schools.
Pat Harrison, superintendent of Ada schools, told The Ada News that Barresi advocates “grandiose ideas we all can tell immediately are not going to work.” Here are two ideas Barresi has championed: Third-grade students should be able to read before advancing, and a high school diploma should mean a student has a high school education. That Harrison apparently finds such goals “grandiose” and doomed to fail is disturbing.
Oklahomans should ignore the conspiracy mongering and embrace the hard work of improving Oklahoma's schools. Clearly, we have much ground to make up. Contrary to the self-serving musings of some administrators, urging that elementary students be taught to read is not a declaration of war on public education.