McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State news

April 24, 2014

Is Oklahoma backing off accountability push in public education?

McALESTER — One by one, K-12 education reforms passed in previous years by Oklahoma lawmakers are being targeted for weakening or repeal.

Among them: Common Core State Standards, the Reading Sufficiency Act, A-F school grades for districts, and middle-school end-of-instruction exams for history and social studies. These could all be scaled back or revoked by various legislative bills that have passed in both the House and Senate.

It is Republicans, who have driven the accountability and testing movement statewide and nationally, who are voting in sometimes large majorities to roll back reforms.

It’s too early to tell how far the retrenchment will go, and whether it’s a temporary shift driven by cautionary election-year strategies that will abate after the primary in June and general election in November. But so far the fallback does not appear to be letting up, in Oklahoma or nationally.

Education officials and advocates cite various reasons for the tempering of reforms, but one of the most frequent is a pushback from parents, teachers and other voters.

“I think their constituents are getting engaged and involved. They are paying attention to the issues, and they will look at their options when it's time to vote,” said Meredith Exline, president of the Oklahoma Central Parent Legislative Action Committee.

One of the biggest changes in the making is the relaxing of the mandatory retention of third graders who fail the state’s reading assessment administered under the Reading Sufficiency Act. On April 16, the Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill, 43-1, and it now heads back to the House for final consideration.

The House passed its version of the bill, 84-6, on March 4. Among other things, the bill would allow a panel of parents, teachers and school leaders to let a student who failed the test advance to fourth grade and receive intervention.

Many parents and teachers have spoken out against mandatory retention tied to the reading test, saying it does more harm than good for students. Opponents have also said the test means third-grade teachers are only focused on one test.

Supporters of the law say the state should not give “social promotion” to third graders who are only reading at a first-grade level. They also point to the existing exemptions that allow students who fail the test but show reading proficiency to move to fourth grade.

Amber England, the government affairs director for Stand for Children Oklahoma, which advocates for school reforms, said repealing mandatory retention could be seen as a sign that the government has failed to properly fund reading programs that were supposed to make the Reading Sufficiency Act successful. She pointed to Oklahoma’s ranking as 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding.

“Schools are being asked to do a whole lot of new things, but they are not getting any money to do them,” England said. “These measures are in jeopardy because the Legislature hasn’t provided the money to do them properly.”

In some cases, the about-face of state leaders on education reforms has been dramatic.

In August, Gov. Mary Fallin’s spokesman, Alex Weintz, told Oklahoma Watch that Fallin supports Common Core standards, adopted by the Legislature in 2010, because they would bring more rigorous benchmarks to public schools. “We’re interested in results,” Weintz said. “We’ve seen results in other states.”

In March, Fallin said she would sign pending legislation that would repeal Common Core, although she still stressed the need for toughening standards.

Similarly, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Ford, R-Bartlesville, who once supported Common Core, voted in favor of the repeal bill.

Legislation is also pending to remove A-F grades for districts; the bill passed the House on April 16 and is headed back to the Senate. The controversial grading of schools, intended to help parents understand how their schools are performing, would remain.

Another rollback bill would end the state’s end-of-course assessment for middle-school students in social studies and geography. The bill, coupled with legislation passed last year, could potentially allow a student to go from kindergarten through 12th grade without ever being tested on American history.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, who has become a symbol for education reform in the state, spoke out Tuesday against the proposal.

But the bill, co-authored by Ford and Republican Rep. Dennis Casey, won a 44-0 vote in the Senate in late February, and was passed by the House Education Committee, 11-8, in early April. It now awaits a vote on the full House floor.

Phil Bacharach, a spokesman for Barresi, said assessments are needed to ensure students are learning and that schools and teachers are meeting their obligations to prepare students.

The ongoing push against many of Oklahoma’s reforms comes just as they are being implemented in the classroom.

A fear of change appears to have prompted some of the pushback, but the state’s poor rankings on national assessments is an indicator old practices don’t work, Bacharach said.

“Our hope is that at the end of the day, accountability remains intact,” Bacharach said. “It’s important for our schools. Certainly, we have reservations about legislation that waters down accountability and high standards for our kids.”

Accountability and high-stakes testing have also dominated education headlines in other states.

Indiana became the first state this year to pull out of Common Core, and South Carolina pulled out of a consortium that developed Common Core-aligned tests. Oklahoma withdrew last year from a similar consortium.

At the grass-roots level, increasing numbers of parents in Oklahoma and elsewhere are deciding to pull their children out of standardized testing. Some Oklahoma parents have said they will pull their students out of the third grade reading test and use an exemption instead.

The rollback movement was embodied last month in a gesture from a Massachusetts teacher that drew national attention: She quit, saying the emphasis on testing had taking the joy out of teaching.

Exline, of the Central Parent Legislative Action Committee, said issues popping up in other states show the trend in Oklahoma is not isolated.

“I really feel like any story I read about education in other states, you could substitute in Oklahoma,” she said.

Those who support strong accountability measures worry that relaxing them will prevent Oklahoma from climbing out of its low academic performance, as measured in national assessments, even if more funding were approved.

“If we water down our standards and just put more money into education, that’s just going to maintain the status quo,” Barresi spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton said.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit, investigative and in-depth reporting team that collaborates with other news organizations and higher education to produce journalism that makes a difference in the lives of Oklahomans.

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