Students in Bixby and Skiatook led Tulsa-area suburban schools in academic proficiency, according to newly released state tests results, while Union remains at the bottom of the list.
A Tulsa World analysis of the 2019 Oklahoma School Testing Program shows most local districts outperformed state averages in the third year of Oklahoma’s latest standardized tests — at least through fifth grade. Middle school math was a different story, with close to half the districts performing below the state average in each of those grades.
Among local districts, Bixby posted the highest student-proficiency rates on five of the 14 state tests. Skiatook came in second with top proficiency rates on four tests. Berryhill posted two top scores, while Owasso, Sperry and Collinsville each had one.
Bixby Superintendent Rob Miller said he is proud of the performance of Bixby students, and educators there will evaluate their students’ results and look for opportunities for improvement, just as they do every year. But he doesn’t think Oklahoma’s state tests measure what they’re supposed to.
“To use it to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching and learning and the rating of schools is just not an effective measure,” Miller said. “If you do a comparison of poverty levels and student performance on these tests, there will be a strong correlation in the results. We are fortunate in Bixby and have a lot of positive demographics in our community, but this (testing system) doesn’t tell the whole story.”
Miller said the greatest fault of the state’s testing system is it provides so little “actionable” information for educators — and raises more questions than it answers.
“When you look year-to-year or follow a cohort group (of student performance as they progress from one grade to the next), it’s hard to get any idea about what’s happening,” Miller said. “We follow all of the frameworks the state provides us. Our teachers look at those (academic) standards every week. We provide intervention and additional support for students not keeping up with those standards. We are doing all of the systematic things that should drive improvement in all of these tested areas, but we don’t necessarily see any growth.”
For example, he said since the state rolled out new tests three years ago, math and reading proficiency has been inexplicably trending downward across the same cohort of elementary school students who were third-graders in 2017, fourth-graders in 2018 and fifth-graders in 2019.
“Every single area has seen a decline within that cohort group. There is no growth across the state and we see the same trend in our results,” Miller said. “We want our kids to be successful. We know it’s important to parents and to our community perception. But in terms of actionable information — information we can use to get these scores up, we’re just shooting in the dark.”
He added: “Teachers never see the tests, they never see the questions. All they know is we teach vocabulary. Do we just teach it better? It really seems to be an exercise in futility.”
Many districts saw big declines in their proficiency rates for fourth-grade reading and math as well as smaller declines for fifth grade compared to the previous year.
Jenks’ student proficiency came in about seven points lower in fourth-grade English this year, while Owasso was down 12 points.
Lisa Muller, associate superintendent for educational services at Jenks, said she doesn’t have a good explanation for why her district saw a decrease, particularly at the fourth-grade level.
However, she said it’s possible this year’s transition to online testing in the fourth and fifth grades may have played a factor.
“Our internal benchmarking did not show this past year’s fourth-graders were less proficient than the prior year, and yet we saw a seven-point drop,” Muller said. “So we do have concerns that the testing format in our case may have influenced things.”
Results at Owasso Public Schools remained relatively flat or slightly improved on most of the tests.
The district didn’t make as many gains as officials hoped for, said Margaret Coates, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at Owasso. But with the state’s new academic standards, she believes the progress seen so far is a good start.
Oklahoma implemented more rigorous state testing assessments in 2016-17 for all of its public schools after abandoning Common Core. The Oklahoma Academic Standards for elementary and middle school students are embedded with the same benchmarks from the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP.
Like Muller, Coates said the implementation of online assessments this year may have proved more challenging for students.
“We’re going to do a better job of making sure that students get the technology in their hands and have lots of time to practice,” she said. “We don’t want that to be a barrier to their doing well on the tests.”
Although Tulsa Public Schools was the only local district that failed to meet the state average in every grade and subject, Union wasn’t far behind. Tulsa’s second largest district surpassed the state average in only one category, eighth-grade math.
Union’s one bright spot amid otherwise bleak results was a seven-point gain in third-grade reading proficiency.
Officials pointed to Peters Elementary School in explaining the uptick since that one school alone increased its third-grade reading proficiency by 15 points.
“We knew we were trending up. I didn’t know it would be 15 points,” said Principal Tracy Weese, who shared the news with Peters teachers when preliminary test results came in at the beginning of summer break. “They were thrilled. They were surprised at how much higher it was.”
When asked how Peters’ three third-grade teachers could have achieved such a feat, Weese pointed to Union’s district-wide strategic plan, which designates literacy as a main focus for every school. At Peters, teachers work in grade level teams to carefully track student progress on the district’s own assessments used throughout the year.
“We set a goal and every single time we have tests, we sit down as a grade level and see if we are trending in the right direction. Do we need to tweak that to keep driving that in the right direction?” Weese said. “And for past three years, we have made sure our professional development is focused on different components of literacy. We are looking at fluency, at comprehension — all of the different pieces that go into a student’s state reading test score.”
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