Educators, analysts continue to study Oklahoma’s flat performance on ACT tests

Oklahoma’s more-or-less “status quo” performance in the annual ACT tests has provoked varied reactions from officials in Oklahoma. 

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Joel Kintsel of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs said broader reform, rather than more taxpayer spending, is necessary. He said: 

“These results are again evidence that just blindly throwing money at common education is completely ineffective. Since 1998, inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding has increased by more than 40 percent, yet education outcomes have remained stagnant. In 1998, the average ACT score for Oklahoma high-school seniors was 20.5; today, the average score is 20.7. It’s time to try implementing real reform that will improve education outcomes instead of just hoping things get better.”

Ginger Tinney of Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE) was disappointed that some neighboring states are outperforming the Sooner State. She said, “When comparing Oklahoma with the surrounding states, (Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and Louisiana) Oklahoma outranked Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana and we tied with Colorado. Kansas was a surprise to me outscoring Oklahoma with a 22 to our 20.7 and Texas outscored us by a .01.”

Tinney, who runs a non-union association that now has several thousand members as an alternative to the larger Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), was most concerned about “our math and science scores. Eight states had lower math scores than Oklahoma with 40 having a higher score. Looking at science we were outscored by 37 other states and 12 states scored lower than Oklahoma.”

She noted, as have other state educators, one silver lining: “The bright spot is that our students did exceed the English benchmark and met the Reading benchmark.”

Asked to suggest ways to better prepare public school students for the ACT, Tinney reflected, “Oklahoma needs to re-evaluate how we are allocating money. Perhaps we need to consider shifting the additional money from the very early childhood programs to math and science areas from elementary all the way to high school. Obviously, these are the areas that we are exceptionally weak in and our students are struggling to understand the content areas.

“We need to consider increasing the time we spend on these two areas, especially in higher elementary and middle school years. I know that many students are challenged in these areas and they need extra help. I also understand that many parents cannot help their children in these areas since they too struggle with the content areas of math and science.

“Perhaps, some of our experienced and highly qualified math and science teachers could be paid additional monies to assist students after school and on weekends.”

As for the high percentage (76) of graduating seniors who take the ACT in Oklahoma, Tinney reflected, “Oklahoma educators have always encouraged our students to take the ACT. It is our standard college readiness test. It is assumed that all students will take it and that is conveyed to students and their families throughout their school years.”

Invited to give other reflections on the status of education, Tinney spoke up for her members and the entire teaching profession, saying, “Oklahoma teachers are feeling attacked at this point and they are feeling frustrated that the state education leadership doesn’t understand what really goes on in our classrooms. 

“We must be able to discipline students in order for learning to take place. If teachers are not allowed to maintain discipline in their classrooms, instruction will suffer. Teachers need parents to be supportive of them and demanding of their children. Parents need to make their children attend school regularly and be on time, make their children do their homework (don’t do it for them) and basically make their children apply themselves in the classroom.”

She continued, “I hate to say this but, many of our students are lazy and just don’t care. This is one of many reasons we need strong character education programs in our schools. They are not respectful of authority and do not take tests seriously. In addition, many of our parents are either too busy or have major problems in their own lives where they can’t give time to their children.

“Teachers are frustrated, even though we are being held totally responsible for students, we are not given the support and tools we need to conduct class. We must be able to kick students out of our classes who are disruptive and hurt the learning of other students. If the parents place education achievement high, then the students will also place academics high as well.”

Tinney encouraged more parents and public officials to put at least as much emphasis on learning as on competitive sports, contending, “Oklahoma parents love sports and place much value and attention to sports. I’m thrilled to see families come together to watch their children excel and participate in sports; the same emphasis needs to placed on learning. Oklahomans are competitive and we like to win, we need to be more competitive in academic achievement. 

“There is no substitute for excellent teachers. We need to support and recognize strong, excellent teachers. In Asian countries, teachers are held in high regard and parents are fined when their children misbehave in class. What a stark contrast to America, where everyone blames the teacher and doesn’t hold the student responsible for their behavior. This must change.”

Also commenting on the ACT test data was Karl Springer, superintendent of the Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state’s largest public school district. He summarized ACT results for the system, and spoke on a range of new efforts to improve school performance. Springer commented:

“Oklahoma City Public School’s ACT Composite score was 18.2 compared to the state ACT Composite score of 20.7. In OKCPS, we have steadily increased the number of students taking the ACT each over the last five years. The state saw a slight decline in the number of students taking the ACT last year. Areas that we saw modest gains as a district include English, Reading, and overall composite.”

Springer, who recently announced a wide range of changes in school site leadership in the city, has ideas on how to improve the performance of local on the ACT. He told CapitolBeatOK, “There are many things that we are doing in Oklahoma City Public Schools to better prepare our students for college and career readiness- which the ACT measures. The first is to create a culture of high expectations across the district for all students. The district strategic plan clearly defines these high expectations and accountability for student academic performance. 

“The next step is providing our students access to rigorous curriculum through our Secondary Reform Initiative – Rigor and Readiness. We are engaging our teachers and building leaders in professional development to improve the level of rigor and depth of knowledge in the core classrooms. We place emphasis on the reading across the curriculum with the launch of the 25 Book Campaign at each school. We encourage and reward each student that reads 25 books which is roughly equivalent to 1 million words. This is an effort to improve our students’ exposure to vocabulary and improve their overall ability to read.

“We are making efforts to engage our students more with rigorous coursework as we collaborate with the National Academy Foundation to bring themed academies to our high schools which tie rigorous coursework with relevant projects and hands on opportunities. Common Core State Standards will also be instrumental in providing a more rigorous framework for across the grade levels.

“The work at the elementary levels that is occurring in OKCPS will have an impact on students as we look at adding Full day Pre-Kindergarten classes, Core Knowledge curriculum, and Great Expectations. These programs will be a foundation from which students will come to secondary school prepared to meet the challenge of more rigorous coursework.”

Springer and other educators believe it is good that so many state students participate in the ACT, a widely accepted benchmark. Among graduating seniors, national participation in ACT is under 50 percent, whereas slightly more than three-fourths of Oklahoma seniors take the test. The widespread use of the test provides an accurate, if often challenging, benchmark for monitoring the state’s progress, or lack thereof. 

Concerning Oklahoma City’s students, Springer said, “Dr. Cindy Brown is a great resource for this data. She works at the Oklahoma Regents’ of Higher Education in Oklahoma City. I don’t know the percentage of students in the district that take ACT compared to SAT, but 1,190 students participated in the national ACT testing opportunities last year.”

He continued, “ACT is attractive due to the use of EXPLORE (8th Grade) and PLAN (10th Grade) benchmarking assessments that the state pays for students to take across the state. EPAS allows for districts to benchmark student progress toward meeting college readiness standards.

CapitolBeatOK asked about end-of-instruction (EOI) tests for this year’s seniors, students planning to graduate next spring. He said, “Seniors across the Oklahoma will be held accountable for ACE requirements which entail the passage of 4 of 7 high stakes tests that will determine if a student graduates. Oklahoma City Public Schools is working to assist as many students as possible meet these requirements through a variety of intervention opportunities.

“The EOI Boot Camp held this summer at Star Spencer High School was an effort to provide remediation to any student who had not passed the required high stakes test. Several students benefited from this opportunity. We will continue to work through a variety of methods, including scheduled intersessions afforded by the Continuous Learning Calendar, to assist our students in meeting the demands of ACE and college and career readiness standards.”

In an earlier story, CapitolBeatOK reported the reactions of state Superintendent Janet Barresi, and Oklahoma City’s president for the American Federation of Teachers.

For CapitolBeatOK’s summary of the testing data, posted early Wednesday morning, go here.

For the perspective of the ACT testing organization, go here.