Ray Carter | November 3, 2021
Academic outcomes vary in Oklahoma schools, but decline the norm
Newly released district-level data from this year’s state testing shows outcomes varied among Oklahoma school districts, but decline was the norm.
Some parents are not shocked by the downward trend tied to COVID shutdowns, but wish local school officials showed a greater sense of urgency in response.
Liz Miller, an Edmond parent, said many families have seen their children go from being high performers to struggling students amidst COVID shutdowns, distance learning, and mass quarantine of health students.
“They’re seeing these tests and they’re thinking, ‘What the heck? We’re in trouble,’” Miller said. “And schools and districts are over-communicating that this is not indicative of the school’s success or your children’s success because it was ‘an unprecedented year,’ etc., rather than adding some accountability and saying, ‘We know that we didn’t provide what children need to be conducive to the best learning environment and we have a lot that we need to remediate this year.’”
Federal law requires states to test students in core subjects each year. In English and math, tests are administered in grades three through eight and 11, while science tests are administered in grades five, eight and 11. Due to COVID, spring 2021 tests were the first administered since 2019.
Statewide results have been available since late September, but the Oklahoma State Department of Education only recently made public the district-level data. Results are broken down into four categories: “advanced" (those testing above grade level), “proficient” (grade level), “basic” (below grade level) or “below basic” (roughly, more than a year below grade level).
As expected, some of the worst results occurred in districts that imposed the most severe COVID restrictions and offered only distance learning throughout much of the 2020-2021 school year. While those districts produced some of the state’s lowest academic outcomes prior to COVID, results are even worse today.
In Tulsa Public Schools, 89 percent of students tested below grade level in all subjects, and 64 percent were more than a year behind. Among Tulsa’s third-grade students, 92 percent tested below grade level in English, and 74 percent were more than a year behind.
In Oklahoma City, 90 percent of students performed below grade level in all subjects. State tests showed 67 percent of students were more than one year behind. Testing also showed 91 percent of Oklahoma City’s third-grade students were below grade level in English with 72 percent more than one grade level behind.
In the Western Heights district, which was closed to in-person learning longer than any other district in Oklahoma, 95 percent of students were below grade level in all subjects. Seventy-two percent were more than a year behind. Among third-grade students, 98 percent were below grade level in English with 88 percent more than a year behind.
The Stillwater school district was closed to in-person learning for all but roughly nine weeks last year. While it achieved better outcomes than its COVID-restriction counterparts, the results were far below the district’s perceived standards.
In 2021, 63 percent of Stillwater students were below grade level in all subjects. Among Stillwater’s third-grade students, 68 percent tested below grade level in English. That decline occurred even though Stillwater had fewer economically disadvantaged students in 2021 than in 2019.
“We were trading one issue for another,” said Taurean DuHart, a Stillwater parent who was a vocal critic of the district’s decision to suspend in-person learning. “You’re trading COVID for ‘now we have kids that are behind in learning (and have) mental-health issues.’”
She said the impacts of last year’s closures are also augmenting current stress on teachers.
“I feel sorry for the teachers,” DuHart said. “Because right now there’s so much pressure trying to teach grade level and catch up kids at the same time.”
Significant learning loss was not limited to districts that relied primarily on distance-learning last year, but also in many suburban schools typically touted as Oklahoma’s best.
In the Edmond school district, state tests showed 59 percent of students were below grade level in all subjects. In 2019, most Edmond students were at grade level or better in English (52 percent) and 50 percent were at grade level or better in math. But in 2021, the majority were below grade level in both English (60 percent) and math (62 percent). In Edmond, 59 percent of third-grade students were also below grade level in English. That decline occurred even though Edmond schools had fewer economically disadvantaged students in 2021 than in 2019.
In spring 2019, state testing showed 58 percent of Deer Creek students were at grade level or better in English and 57 percent in math. But the numbers flipped in 2021, and 56 percent of Deer Creek students were below grade level in English and 59 percent below grade level in math. In addition, 55 percent of Deer Creek’s third-grade students were below grade level in English.
In the Jenks district, 66 percent of students were below grade level in all subjects. In third-grade English, 68 percent of students were below grade level.
In the Union school district, 80 percent of students tested below grade level in all subjects with 47 percent more than a year behind. Among third graders, 84 percent tested below grade level in English with 59 percent more than a year behind.
In Owasso, 64 percent of students tested below grade level in all subjects. Sixty-eight percent of Owasso third graders were below grade level in English.
In Broken Arrow, 73 percent of students tested below grade level in all subjects. State tests showed 74 percent of the school’s third grade students were below grade level in English.
In Bixby, 63 percent of students tested below grade level in all subjects. Among third grade students, 59 percent were below grade level in English.
“It’s definitely a concern of everybody,” said Matt Thompson, a Deer Creek parent. “A lot of people are getting tutors, trying to figure out how to get their kids caught up for ACTs at the high-school level, and of course at the lower levels we have tons of parents of kids younger than third grade, through pre-K—and that’s the majority of parents I’m talking to—and they’re all worried. They’re worried about how many transitions we still have in our district. They’re worried about how some of their kids are going to get caught up in some of the basic needs.”
Thompson praised the work of local teachers who “had to figure out how to get something done, to get some learning to happen.” Without their efforts, he said the situation would be even worse today.
However, parents remain frustrated with local school boards that were unresponsive when families highlighted problems with distance-learning efforts and quarantine policies, particularly for lower-income households where both parents work.
“We have parents who can write emails and issue their concerns—and receive no response,” Miller said. “You can go and speak at a school-board meeting until you’re blue in the face, and they don’t have to respond to your concerns or acknowledge you, even.”
DuHart is also critical of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who DuHart said failed to provide leadership.
“Schools were really left to figure out themselves, to train the teachers to the best of their ability, to come up with some new form of learning that we’ve never done and that our students and our kids had never experienced,” DuHart said.
Hofmeister’s main COVID policy proposal called for closing schools when COVID rates in a county exceeded a very low threshold. The State Board of Education opted to adopt that proposal only as guidance, rather than mandating closures as proposed by Hofmeister. Had Hofmeister’s plan been implemented as a mandate, many more schools would have been required to cease in-person learning throughout much of the 2020-2021 school year, including more than 500 districts at one point in time.
Even with far fewer school closures than under Hofmeister’s plan, research conducted by the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) found that learning loss in Oklahoma was greater than in surrounding states, and officials have warned it will take years to make up the lost ground.
Parental displeasure with Oklahoma public-school performance and responsiveness comes as similar issues are playing out nationwide, including in this month’s elections. At the local level, challengers in school-board elections won a significant number of races nationwide, while at the statewide level in Virginia, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin was elected governor after campaigning in support of parents’ rights in education. The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, became the first black woman elected to statewide office in Virginia after she openly advocated for parental rights and school choice.
“Something’s got to give,” Sears said in one interview. “Parents are asking to be given the voucher so that they can decide where to send their children. We need charter schools. I’m knocking on doors—public housing. The moms and dads, they’re not telling me they want more money for their child to go to that same school. They want choice.”
For some parents, the results of Oklahoma’s state testing may validate their decision to pursue other options.
“My daughter ended in pre-K in 2020 and I didn’t start working with her on reading right away, but whenever we did she went from being a non-reader to reading books within four months,” said Jennifer Johnson, who ultimately opted to homeschool her children due to restrictions on in-person learning in Owasso schools. “And that was just me with no official training just going along with our curriculum.”
Other parents worry about the broader societal impact.
“Some kids will never make up that ground,” DuHart said. “There are kids that don’t have that family structure that were behind to begin with, that are going to be behind now. And they’re the kids that will always need government assistance. They’re the kids that will wind up incarcerated, on drugs, that we will be supporting with government money, tax money, from here on out.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
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.