Why you should care
Because a frank discussion about education is needed.
In front of state superintendent Joy Hofmeister lies an amorphous mass of fact sheets and printed PowerPoints spitting out stats all over her office table at the Oklahoma State Department of Education building. Among the key takeaways: The state’s undergrads pay $22 million annually for remediation classes because their high schools didn’t prepare them properly for college; teachers’ salaries start at $31,600 versus $51,000 in neighboring Texas; and testing scores show only a quarter of students reach the basic benchmarks of 22 on the ACT and 530 for the SAT.
In past years, Oklahoma had lower educational proficiency standards than the rest of the nation. Since taking office in 2015, Hofmeister has worked to adopt the more challenging National Assessment of Educational Progress standards — and the revelations from that decision have been telling.
In 2015, Oklahoma reported 75 percent of its eighth-graders were proficient in reading. According to national standards, only 29 percent are.
The education nonprofit Achieve calls this the “honesty gap,” although some educators and politicians prefer to use the term “proficiency gap” (the former implies intentional deception, Hofmeister argues). Regardless of nomenclature, the fact remains: Oklahoma is just one of many states nationwide that has previously overstated its children’s readiness for college.
And decisions made historically at the state level have left some parents in the dark. As Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, wrote in an October editorial: “Thus, state officials have been able to claim, ‘You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma’ — while the nation’s report card shows Oklahoma is not doing fine at all.”
Recently, a number of states have led the way on rectifying that disparity. A year after Achieve published a report on the subject in May 2015, 18 states had worked to narrow the gap. Georgia once had the most pronounced gap in the country, but today is “among the best” at providing transparent information to parents, according to the Collaborative for Student Success. However, some of the nation’s worst offenders, including Texas, Iowa and Virginia, have yet to reduce proficiency inflation. And shifting the goalposts doesn’t always go smoothly. In Oklahoma, many parents who received test scores in November are probably wondering why their formerly high-scoring children are now deemed not proficient.
Taking an honest look at education success is especially crucial in Oklahoma, where the state legislature has cut K–12 spending by $1 billion in the past decade — even as enrollment grew by 50,000 students. “The downturn in the oil and gas industry has been part of it,” says Gene Perry, policy director at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, “but, frankly, Oklahoma started cutting education when oil was at $100 a barrel.” Schools are ramping up class sizes and switching to four-day weeks. Teachers are “forced to work two jobs to stay in the profession,” Hofmeister laments. The situation is dire. And while addressing the honesty gap is shedding more light, educators here fear that seeing the problem alone won’t be enough to fix it.
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