Elementary reading scores plunge

Oklahoma school spending on reading has increased by a triple-digit percentage since 2017, yet far more Oklahoma public-school students are considered at risk today than just five years ago, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE).

Testing shows more than half of first- and second-grade students in Oklahoma public schools began the 2021-2022 school year classified as “at risk” in reading—51.5 percent and 53.6 percent, respectively—while 47.7 percent of third grade students were at risk and 44.3 percent of kindergarten students.

That is the highest such rate for each grade in seven years of tracking. In the 2015-2016 school year, 36.3 percent of kindergarten students were at risk in reading, 39.7 percent of first graders, 40.1 percent of second graders, and 40.1 percent of third grade students.

OSDE officials said the enormous growth in at-risk students is due primarily to two main factors. First, the lack of in-person instruction in many Oklahoma schools over the past two years has had a significant negative impact on reading instruction. Second, many schools effectively gamed the system in past years by using improper assessments that did not show the true reading level of at-risk students. State officials had to implement regulations that subsequently forced districts to be honest.

Those trends were discussed during an Oklahoma State Department of Education budget hearing held before the House Appropriations and Budget Committee this week.

Carolyn Thompson, chief of government affairs for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, told lawmakers that COVID shutdowns in public schools have played a major role in students losing ground.

“Second grade is the next-largest increase, which is where students begin shifting to reading texts fluently, as opposed to being assessed on individual skills,” Thompson said. “In other words, they have to put their knowledge of all those skills that they have learned in kindergarten and first grade together to be able to read fluently enough to comprehend. This requires a lot of direct instruction, something that students were not always able to receive in the 2020-2021 school year, the year prior. Even those in school may have gaps in skills due to on-and-off absences or temporary closures.”

Hofmeister Plan Would Have Closed More Schools

Joy Hofmeister with student

While many districts were closed for in-person instruction throughout much of the 2020-2021 school year, particularly in the state’s largest urban districts, closures would have been even more extensive statewide under a plan proposed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister at the start of the 2020-2021 school year.

Hofmeister’s plan would have required school districts to close when COVID rates topped 25 cases per 100,000 population, a threshold so low a literal handful of cases would have forced schools in some rural counties to close. That plan also “strongly recommended” that schools “transition to alternative schedules (A/B weeks, rotations, hybrid model, etc.) or distance learning” when rates reached 14.39 cases per 100,000 population.

At the time, Hofmeister argued against trusting local school officials to make closure decisions.

“There is not an assurance that even communities where there are high community transmissions will be in touch with experts that we have spent hours and hours and hours working—and are committed and will continue to work—to keep the safety and well-being of our districts at the top priority, with the time and effort it takes to bring all of the information for these kinds of critical decisions,” Hofmeister said.

However, a majority of State Board of Education members, who aside from Hofmeister are all appointees of Gov. Kevin Stitt, voted instead to adopt Hofmeister’s plan as guidance rather than as a state mandate.

Data maintained by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA) showed that Hofmeister’s plan, if implemented, would have forced nearly all Oklahoma schools to close for a substantial part of the 2020-2021 school year.

For every week between Oct. 1, 2020, and Feb. 11, 2021, all schools in a majority of Oklahoma counties would have been required to close under the 25-cases-per-100,000-population threshold. At any given time from Nov. 5, 2020, to Feb. 11, 2021, schools in no more than nine counties out of 77 statewide would have been allowed to provide in-person instruction under Hofmeister’s plan.

Had schools abided by Hofmeister’s recommendation to transition to distance learning whenever COVID cases exceeded 14.39 cases per 100,000 population in a county, OSSBA data showed that schools in a majority of counties would have been closed under that standard every single week from Aug. 27, 2020, to March 4, 2021.

Many school districts statewide would also be closed today if Hofmeister’s plan were implemented as a mandate.

Although OSDE officials attribute the growth of at-risk readers in Oklahoma schools to the lack of in-person instruction, Hofmeister has steadily opposed efforts to reduce school closures and forced student absences.

In January 2021, when Stitt endorsed easing quarantine policies in Oklahoma schools so that only students who test positive for COVID would be required to quarantine, Hofmeister immediately announced her opposition.

She has also criticized Stitt’s recent efforts to increase the pool of substitute teachers by allowing state employees to serve as substitutes without losing their state salaries for those days.

Hofmeister recently switched parties and is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to challenge Stitt in this year’s election.

‘Spending More Money But Getting Worse Results’

Lawmakers noted that reading performance in Oklahoma public schools has gotten worse even as funding for reading education has surged.

In 2017, lawmakers appropriated $4.5 million for Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) funding, which is used to help struggling students achieve reading proficiency. By 2022, lawmakers increased that amount to $12 million, an increase of 166 percent. On a per-pupil basis, RSA funding has risen from $56.13 per student in 2017 to $121.93 per student in 2022, an increase of 117 percent.

“We’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in RSA funding, both total and on a per-pupil basis, but our reading scores have either been stagnant or declined,” said Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid.

He noted the Legislature altered the RSA law around 2016 and made it easier for schools to promote students from third grade even when those students did not test at proficient levels.

“Do we need to start having a conversation about unwinding those changes since we’re spending more money but getting worse results?” Caldwell said.

Gaming the System

Thompson told Caldwell part of the increase in reported at-risk students is due to school districts effectively disguising the true share of those students in past years.

“We discovered that districts were actually using tools that either weren’t appropriately identifying kids or weren’t actually screeners,” Thompson said.

The list of testing providers that schools could use to assess reading proficiency was cut in half after a third-party review, Thompson said.

But Caldwell noted better assessment should have also led to better interventions that lowered the share of at-risk students.

“If we’re identifying more kids to help, I would think our reading scores would have increased,” Caldwell said.

Another lawmaker noted that research indicates significant reading improvement can be achieved with limited interventions, and also noted OSDE has apparently eliminated some programs that were helping students under the administration of prior state superintendents.

“I tutored in second and third grade back in the mid-80s, and one of the things that we found and we assessed was that 10 minutes a week with a child increased their reading accomplishment by 50 percent,” said Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole.

Willaims recalled that OSDE had a reading program under the administration prior to Hofmeister’s tenure that partnered with community organizations and used volunteers to assist struggling readers, but that program was canceled.

“Our church did tutoring on Wednesday night before service, and we had tremendous success, and then all of a sudden that initiative left,” Williams said.

Thompson stressed that most of the recent decline in reading preparation is tied to COVID school closures.

“Certainly, the most recent increase we attribute to kids not being in the classroom, or being in-and-out of the classroom, or having not enough contact with their teacher—really seeing the effects of the pandemic,” Thompson said.

If Oklahoma does not reverse the downward trend in student reading, Williams said, the long-term effects will be disastrous.

“We also know that by third grade we can pretty much tell who’s going to end up in our correctional system,” Williams said, “because they can’t function.”

About the author: Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared on OCPAthink.org January 27, 2022 here.

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