A recent assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that fourth-grade reading scores in Oklahoma have risen by five percentage points over two years, which has prompted high-stakes testing supporters to claim the state’s relatively new third-grade retention policy show us that it’s all about get-tough policies, not money, that matters most when it comes to education.
But a closer look at the overall numbers is more ambiguous than the flunk-them-all, anti-education yahoos want us to believe, and one round of scores in one year doesn’t mean anything significant.
In 2011, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a law supported by the former controversial and divisive Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi that forced school districts to retain third graders if they didn’t pass tests showing they could read at least at the first-grade level. The new 2015 NAEP statistics show that fourth-grade reading scores have gone up since 2013 from 217 to 222 on their reporting scale. This supposedly proves that flunking third graders is the answer to educational progress here in Oklahoma, according to conservatives.
Barresi was overwhelmingly ousted from her position recently by voters, of course, and she left a trail of bitterness that still resonates in the education community across the state. The editorial board of The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com wants us to believe this redeems her in some measure, but it’s more complicated and nuanced than that.
Take a close look at the scores and rankings. Consider this: In 1992, the NAEP reported a fourth-grade reading score in Oklahoma of 220. Now it’s 222. That’s only two points, not five points. Consider also the amount of resources that were placed on meeting the requirements of the new law, which was highly public and scrutinized heavily in the media. It was a trade-off. It meant resources for other educational initiatives or programs were cut or shifted to meet conservative ideology.
Everyone, and especially educators, wants third-graders to be able to read at their grade level and to show they can continue to progress. The reading issue has never been about indifference. It’s been about large class sizes, the huge cost of one-on-one instruction and many students’ unstable home environments that privilege chaos over reading. The educational system had to respond to a bad policy by throwing resources at it, and there’s the two-point blip from 1992 to 2015. What does it even mean in the larger picture? Scores and rankings only de-humanize students. The scores also show that 67 percent of fourth-graders here are not proficient at reading. Shouldn’t that be the issue?
The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com refers to those “illiterate third-grade students,” but what type of a person would call a third-grader “illiterate” in the first place. Third graders may need help in reading, but they shouldn’t be demonized. The newspaper dismisses concerns that holding students back a grade can create social stigma, but in many cases it does create social stigma and has a negative psychological impact that can last an entire lifetime.
What conservatives here want us to believe is that draconian flunk-them-all laws and high-stakes testing are the answers to improving education outcomes and that it doesn’t matter that Oklahoma has cut education funding the most of any state since 2008 or that it ranks 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending.
We have a teacher shortage here because of low salaries. We have a low college graduation rate. We have a shortage of skilled workers. Meanwhile, education funding is almost certain to face more cuts next year, maybe even this year, because our leaders have decided to give tax breaks to the wealthy and oil and gas companies. A two-point shift in a testing score over 23 years doesn’t mean much in the larger scheme.