State superintendent, Oklahoma City union leader respond to ACT data

A teachers’ union president in the midst of negotiations with the Oklahoma City Public schools and state Superintendent Janet Barresi were among the first education leaders to respond to the release of new ACT testing data for Oklahoma and the rest of the country.

In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Superintendent Barresi reflected, “ Overall, the way I examine the data, Oklahoma’s ACT results remain somewhat flat since 2007. The one bright spot I see is in English, where our students come in just above the national average. When you get past that, especially in Science and Math scores, it is clear the job is not getting done.”

To illustrate the Sooner State’s challenges, the first-term superintendent, a statewide elected official, pointed to this year’s assessment of Oklahoma by ACT, Inc. entitled, “The Condition of College and Career Readiness.” 
She pointed to page 10 of that document, which includes a chart showing the percentage of 2011 ACT-tested high school graduates who are interested in varied high-growth careers. The chart documented weak preparedness among Oklahoma students in the desired areas of management, marketing, community services, education and health care. 

By far the weakest preparation was in the arena of health care, among “kids who by their own indication want to go into the health care field.” ACT science scores among those wishing to enter the health care field were abysmal, with only 11 percent reaching the benchmarks or threshold identified in the ACT matrix. 

Barresi commented, “Oh my goodness, if we’ve got kids who are simply not getting ready with the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) needs, the problem is clear. For our kids not be prepared in the STEM area is a fundamental flaw. We have got to get them ready. 

“I encourage people to explore the data. In the ACT profiles report, for Oklahoma, it is clear that if a student has taken four years of English, they are coming in 1.5 points higher than if they took only three years. In fact, they are doing better than students in the rest of the nation. 

“A four-year Math preparation that wraps up with Trigonometry and Calculus yields an average score of 23.1 in Oklahoma. Our kids who have the four years of preparation actually come in comparable to the rest of the nation. If they take only three years, that average is around 17.”

CapitolBeatOK commented, “So, it’s data in, data out?” Barresi responded, “Exactly.” She continued: “Four years of social studies our kids get near 22 on the ACT. If they take only three years of social studies, the score is 20.3. 

“It is perhaps most dramatic in the Science area. With four years of science classes, an Oklahoma student is getting a 23.7 on the ACT Science, on average. Only three years? The average is 18. This is powerful evidence: the amount of instruction is the crucial measure.”

Barresi continued, observing, “There was a slight decrease in the raw number of students taking the ACT test, but we are still a high ACT-taking state.” Indeed, 76 percent of Oklahoma’s graduating seniors took the ACT in the 2010-11 academic year, compared to 49 percent nationwide.

Barresi had deep concerns about gaps among students of varied ethnic backgrounds. She said she is focused on “performance gaps that the report shows when it comes ethnic background. That information gives me concern as well. We have to encourage and support minority students in taking the Advanced Placement courses and other challenging classes. Simply, the more rigorous classes get everyone ready. 

“To sum up, rigor works. Rigor teaches students how to think. A depth of material and kids will work themselves through the content, and learn how to think about the content.”

On the day Barresi was interviewed this week, she was returning from northeast Oklahoma, and a visit to a Bama Pie factory. She said, “It now runs primarily on robotics. There are still good jobs in the factory I visited, but you have to be computer literate and have some science to get those kinds of jobs. “

Ed Allen of the American Federation of Teachers (AFL-CIO), the bargaining agent for public school teachers in Oklahoma City, pointed to English scores as a modest positive in the new ACT data, but concurred with Barresi that the state is falling short.

He told CapitolBeatOK, “While it’s good we’re hanging in there, there’s a lot of work to do. There is not any one thing that would turn the whole picture around and put it in the direction we all want. I think the Blueprint we offered several weeks ago, the whole package, could help us in the Oklahoma City schools.”

Allen argues, “I believe a development program for teachers is critical. Think about it, at Wal-Mart when there’s a new hire they have someone by them all the time in the early stages, teaching them the ropes. This is not a criticism of just Oklahoma, it’s the case nationally that we have got things backwards and don’t do enough for a teacher when she or he first hits the classroom.”

Allen agrees with Oklahoma City Public schools superintendent Karl Springer on the desirability of longer school days. He said more hours “would help, and that’s a subject we’re covering with management in current negotiations in the city school district.”

Allen cautioned, “There is no one thing that is a game-changer, and no two or three things that are game changers. It’s more complicated that that.

“I see some encouraging signs in the reading results and to some extent in the writing. We have a lot of kids for whom English is not their first language; it’s an area where we are historically week. We have to celebrate any success or area of success, but still we have a lot more work to do. 

“It remains significant that Oklahoma has such a high percentage of kids to take the test, it’s much higher than in most other states. 

CapitolBeatOK noted the percentage of seniors taking the ACT in Texas was just over one-third, compared to Oklahoma’s high participation, hovering around three-quarters of all graduating high school seniors. Allen responded, “That is a good point, and most essentially it makes it hard to assess Oklahoma against Texas, to have apples to apples and oranges to oranges comparisons. 

“In some ways it is a battle over local control. I’m encouraging people to think it through. Without some kind of national standard I’m not sure how we can compare oranges t oranges in the testing data, and avoid comparing apples to oranges in ways that give you inaccurate conclusions.”