Tuesday, November 3, 2015
by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
Published: November 3, 2015
WE'VE had reason to criticize the state of education in Oklahoma, so it's a pleasure when we can highlight improvement. That's the case with the recent release of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores, which showed Oklahoma experienced the third-largest gain nationally in fourth-grade reading scores. We only hope lawmakers will now protect the reforms that made this improvement possible.
In 2011, at the prompting of Gov. Mary Fallin and then-state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, the Legislature passed a law requiring students to repeat the third grade if they read at a first-grade level or lower. Status-quo forces vocally opposed the retention law, which took full effect for students taking tests in spring 2014. Critics claimed retention would only stigmatize children and no meaningful education improvement would occur.
The results tell a different story.
The NAEP, an independent national test that employs far more rigorous standards than most state tests, found 33 percent of Oklahoma fourth-grade students were proficient or better in reading. Those students were among those subject to the retention law.
Oklahoma's fourth-grade reading scores jumped five points since the last round of NAEP testing in 2013. That may not sound like much, but it's a larger improvement than what occurred in all but two states. And 15 states saw reading scores fall this year.
The NAEP results show that policy changes can generate education improvement, and also undermine claims that money alone separates success and failure. While Oklahoma's per-pupil spending is among the lowest in the country ($7,672 in 2013 according to Census figures), reading scores increased. Yet Maryland, where per-pupil spending is $13,829, experienced the greatest decline in NAEP fourth-grade reading performance and now barely ranks ahead of Oklahoma.
The NAEP scores also echo gains seen on state tests. This year, the share of Oklahoma fourth-grade students scoring “proficient” or better on state reading tests increased notably compared with 2014 results.
Admittedly, Oklahoma still has much room for improvement. While Oklahoma's fourth-grade NAEP reading scores are now above the national average, the state remains far from the top of the heap. Despite improvement, the fact that NAEP found 67 percent of students were not proficient in reading justifies continued focus, not complacency.
The gains being made, however, should cause lawmakers to preserve the third-grade reading law, and reconsider changes they have since enacted to water it down. Under legislation passed in 2014, schools were allowed to socially promote some functionally illiterate third-grade students if school officials and parents endorse it.
At this point, it's worth tracking how those socially promoted students did on reading tests compared with those who repeated the third grade and were given more intensive reading interventions. Anecdotally, reports indicate students who repeated a grade are gaining academically while their socially promoted peers are not.
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who campaigned as an opponent of the reading law, now acknowledges it's generating improvement. She said the NAEP scores show the reading law is “working” and ensuring that school officials “are reaching schoolchildren who need help the most.”
The policymakers who championed the reading law, and the teachers who have diligently worked to raise student achievement, deserve praise for this progress. What's not warranted is to now weaken or repeal a law that clearly is working as designed.