Two more Barresi priorities head to Governor Fallin for consideration

 Two education reforms central in the policy planks that Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi has pressed since coming to office this year, cleared the Legislature Monday (May 2) and are headed to Governor Mary Fallin for a likely signature and enactment into law.

One of the ideas has been pegged by a national education reform leader as a key step taken in Florida before that state saw major educational performance advances over the past decade.

Senate Bill 346, intended to limit social promotion after third grade and putting new emphasis on reading instruction, gained final approval in the upper chamber on Monday.

A legislative staff summary said the bill “would require students entering first grade in the 2011-2012 school year to master grade-appropriate reading skills by the end of third grade in order to be promoted to the fourth grade.”

Two Republicans pressed for the ban on social promotion.

State Rep. Sally Kern of Oklahoma City, House sponsor of the legislation, commented in a statement to CapitolBeatOK, “To send a child to the fourth grade when that child has not mastered appropriate reading skills sets that child up for academic struggle and potential failure. Ending social promotion is crucial to empowering all Oklahoma students to succeed both in school and in the workforce later in life.”

Sen. Clark Jolley of Edmond reflected, “It comes down to the simple question of whether we want Oklahoma’s children to succeed. The current system has allowed far too many students to slip through the cracks. Unless we want to keep repeating the same mistakes, it is time to try a new approach.”

Jolley continued, “This is about doing everything we can to make sure the child is prepared to learn by being able to read. As a last resort, they will be retained in order to get the extra time and help they need to master that fundamental skill.”

Another reform proposal, House Bill 1456, would fashion a report card system, with grades A-F for public schools as institutions — similar to what generations of students have faced as individuals within schools. Senator Jolley said the measure “means more children will be able to succeed in school, in college and in life — and that means a better future for our entire state.”

State Rep. Lee Denney, champion of opportunity scholarships last week, led the way on H.B. 1456 this week.

The Cushing Republican who runs the House appropriations subcommittee on education, Rep. Denney, said the measure was another breakthrough for substantive reform.

She commented, “Today, lawmakers moved from talking about education reform to enacting it. The new letter-grading system will provide parents a measurable, concrete and clear apples-to-apples comparison between local schools. As a result, this measure will help determine both our state’s success stories and areas of need, incentivizing improvement and a better product for all Oklahoma children.”

Denney summarized, in a release Monday afternoon, the likely new grading structure for schools:

• “A” means schools making excellent progress;

• “B” means schools making above average progress;

• “C” means schools making satisfactory progress;

• “D” means schools making less than satisfactory progress; and

• “F” means schools failing to make adequate progress.

Denney continued, “This legislation will make it easier for poorer-performing schools to duplicate the strategies of their successful counterparts, benefiting students all across Oklahoma. All Oklahoma children deserve access to a quality education, and this bill will help make that possible.”

Speaker of the House Kris Steele told CapitolBeatOK and other news organizations, “Assigning letter grades to schools on annual performance reports makes schools more accountable to the public by making it easier to understand how the schools are performing. Schools are currently assigned a nondescript numeric performance score that is based on an overly-complex formula the public does not understand. Everyone knows letter grades, so the reforms in House Bill 1456 make evaluating schools easier for everyone.”

H.B. 1456 cleared the House 59-31 and is now with the chief executive.

As for S.B. 346, Steele said, “The foundation for all learning is reading. Advancing students who can’t read does not serve them well, nor does it serve the education system well. … We are empowering students to continue their educations in productive ways and helping educators by sending them students who are prepared to learn.

“I am glad Reps. Lee Denney and Sally Kern displayed strong leadership on these issues.”

With Jolley’s stewardship, S.B. 346 cleared the Senate 28-12 and is now with the chief executive.

Barresi had made both ideas central elements of her “3R Agenda” designed to “rethink, restructure and reform” the Sooner State’s education system.

In comments provided to CapitolBeatOK, Barresi said, “Parents have a right to know how schools are performing without having to wade through obscure numbers. And by drawing a line in the sand in the third grade, we can help children succeed in their most critical learning years. Neither of these reforms in isolation is a panacea, but the cumulative effect will be an important first step in improving our state’s education system.”

Barresi predicted S.B. 346 will lead to early intervention strategies allowing educators to fashion strategies to help children as early as pre-K and Kindergarten. Barresi said, “Children make an important shift in learning after the third grade. If they aren’t prepared they fall significantly behind and grow increasingly frustrated.”

The school grading system in H.B. 1456 uses measurements drawn from student test scores, learning gains in math and reading, the progress of students at the 25th percentile within a school, and what is deemed “whole school improvement.”

According to Rep. Denney’s summary, “33 percent of a school’s grade would be based upon test scores, 17 percent learning gains in reading and mathematics, 17 percent on improvement of the lowest 25th percentile of students in the school in reading and mathematics, and 33 percent on whole school improvement.

“For middle school grades and elementary school grades, total school improvement will be based upon the drop-out rate, the percentage of students taking higher level coursework at a satisfactory or higher level, and any other factors selected by the superintendent of public instruction.”

Barresi concluded, “This reform offers a clear and easy way for parents and citizens to quickly determine how schools are performing.”

The legislation creating a grading system for schools has been described by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush as a key element in the dramatic, even transformative changes wrought in the Sunshine State.

Bush has described school choice as “the catalytic converter for education reform.” Nonetheless, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Bush reflected, the impetus for change began in his first year as that state’s chief executive, with “the introduction of accountability” in the form of letter grades for individual schools.

That reform, he said, brought new levels of transparency and accountability to the system, especially in combination with incentives for improvements in performance. When “under performing schools” suddenly became “schools with a grade of D or F,” voters understood, Bush said.

Bush made the comments when he visited Oklahoma in March. At a Blue Room press conference and in the Citizenship Dinner sponsored by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, Bush said Oklahoma and Indiana were the two most active states pressing for sweeping school reforms in 2011.

Rep. Denney provided some details on how changes unfolded in Florida, where standardized test schools have been improving (including for minority students). Information provided by Denny reported, “In 1999, the first year Florida issued letter grades for schools, there were 515 schools that received an A or B, while 677 received Ds or Fs. Performance continually improved until 2,317 schools received As or Bs in 2009, and just 217 received Ds or Fs.”

On a parallel track, In key standardized measurements, Florida went from average reading scores of 208 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1992, to 214 in 2002, and to 226 in 2010.

Superintendent Barresi has said Oklahoma’s low scores on NAEP assessments should trigger a “call to action” for Oklahoma.