Education

Ray Carter | September 30, 2021

Oklahoma student achievement plummets amidst school shutdowns

Academic achievement in Oklahoma public schools plunged during the COVID shutdowns that began in spring 2020 and continued in many districts throughout much of the following school year, based on the newly released results of state academic testing presented to the State Board of Education.

Fewer than one in four Oklahoma students performed at grade level or better in English Language Arts in spring 2021. The share performing at grade level was even lower in math, and fewer than 30 percent of students were at grade level in science.

Grade-specific results were worse in some instances with fewer than one in five Oklahoma students testing at grade level in certain grades and subjects.

“We should be alarmed by what we are seeing—the impact of COVID on our children and our families,” said State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

Federal law requires states to test students in core subjects each year, although that requirement was waived in 2020 due to COVID shutdowns. The spring 2021 tests were the first administered since 2019.

In English and math, tests are administered in grades three through eight and eleven, while science tests are administered to students in grades five, eight, and eleven. Statewide, 92 percent of Oklahoma public-school students were tested in English and math while 91 percent took the science test.

Among all students and grades tested, the share who performed at grade level or better in math fell from 31.9 percent in 2019 to 22.1 percent in 2021. In math, it fell from 33.4 percent to 24.8 percent, while in science it declined from 34.5 percent to 29.7 percent.

The decline in third-grade results was significant, and those students are expected to continue struggling for years as a result, officials noted.

“The third grade is really very important for us to think about, the fact that these are second graders that were disrupted with the final piece of their last four months in second grade (in spring 2020),” Hofmeister said.

In 2019, state testing showed that 39 percent of Oklahoma third graders were performing at grade level or better in English, but just 25 percent achieved the same results in 2021. In math, 43 percent of third-grade students were performing at grade level and above in 2019, but just 29 percent did so in 2021.

Student achievement levels are typically higher in the lower-elementary grades and decline as students progress through school in subsequent years. That trend preceded the COVID shutdown but may become even worse following the COVID-related loss of learning, officials noted.

For example, 29 percent of seventh-grade students were at grade level in English Language Arts in 2019. In 2021, that share plunged to 19 percent.

In 2019, just 23 percent of eighth-grade students were at grade level or better in math, but that figure fell even further to just 14 percent in 2021—meaning 86 percent of Oklahoma eighth grade students were below grade level.

“What we’re seeing in grade three performance is the impact of kids’ experiences in grade two in grade three,” said Juan D’Brot, a senior associate at the nonprofit Center for Assessment who was among officials presenting state-testing results to members of the board.

If children have “missed some foundational content” in third grade, he said the challenge will be to try to “accelerate” learning in grade four and determine if students are “reclaiming the lost ground.”

Officials note teaching in early grades provides the foundations for more advanced learning in higher grades. As a result, the loss of foundational learning has a compounding impact over time that can leave students further and further behind.

“Historically, it’s been very difficult to close achievement gaps,” D’Brot said. “We know that for a fact.”

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We can invest dollars and try to catch kids up,’ but if we’re pushing kids through grades, we’re going to see the compounding effects of the pandemic for years,” said state board member Carlisha Bradley.

The share of students performing at grade level declined in every grade and subject tested in Oklahoma this year, except for 11th-grade science, which stayed the same with just 24 percent testing at grade level in both 2019 and 2021.

At a recent legislative hearing, Hofmeister downplayed the results of this year’s state testing and encouraged policymakers and parents to not put too much weight on those outcomes. Hofmeister said student participation rates were too low to disaggregate outcomes among student groups and “understand how things actually affected them. We then are only left with anecdotal information.”

But Ryan Walters, a teacher who serves as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s cabinet secretary of education, said the results show the importance of making sure education dollars are being spent wisely in the public-school system.

“Today’s State Board of Education meeting unfortunately showcases what parents already know: Oklahoma students are struggling,” Walters said. “After a long fight to get students back in the classroom and as we invest a record $3.2 billion into education, the decline in academic performance further underscores the need for solutions focused on raising academic expectations and results. Governor Stitt’s request for an investigative audit to ensure taxpayer dollars are focused on the right priorities is a step in the right direction. Oklahoma’s students deserve the best education, and we must provide opportunities for all students to achieve excellence regardless of their background or ZIP code.”

Officials said parents will be able to view statewide district-level data on Oct. 4.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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