With Exams Gone, Uncertainty over School Report Cards Grows

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The elimination of end-of-course tests that Oklahoma public school students take each year will throw more uncertainty into the state’s efforts to develop a new system of measuring school performance.

The state’s much-criticized A through F report card system relies on students’ scores from standardized end-of-instruction exams, which were eliminated when the governor signed into law House Bill 3218 on Monday.

The law is intended to preserve time in the classroom for learning, reduce what many educators say is a culture of over-testing and potentially save the state millions of dollars.

But the letter-grade system will now need revisions because it relies on those student test scores, including a year-to-year comparison to evaluate growth, or academic improvement.

Education Department Memo About End of Exams

The grading system is already undergoing an overhaul, and it’s unclear what the future report cards will look like. Under the legislation, the department is required to develop a new school accountability system by Jan. 1.

The department is expected to release the latest school report cards this fall, based on results from the 2015-2016 school year. The law allows for 2016-2017 to be a transition year, and the department is tasked with adopting a statewide system of student testing aligned with the new academic standards, adopted by the Legislature in March.

That year won’t be comparable to previous years to determine student growth.

The report cards have already been denounced by many stakeholders, including State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. She has called the current grading system an unreliable measure of school accountability and wants the state to create a better system. She hasn’t specifically called for abandoning letter grades.

“She is committed to the A-F accountability system, but wants to ensure it is valid and meaningful,” said Deana Silk, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

Last year, 212 schools received an A. Most schools received a B (597) or a C (546). There were 333 schools that received a D and 183 that scored an F.

Under the new law, a result of HB 3218 by House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, high school students will be given a single comprehensive assessment aligned with the state’s new academic standards and a nationally-recognized college readiness exam, such as the ACT.

Scores will no longer be tied to graduation; previously, students had to pass four of seven end-of-instruction exams to receive a diploma.

The test load will be reduced to 18 tests from 26 that students now take between third grade and their senior year of high school. All but one of the remaining tests are federally mandated.

Student testing in Oklahoma costs $18.8 million a year, about 20 percent of which is paid with federal funds. Eliminating end-of-instruction exams is expected to save $7.3 million but could be offset by the costs of administering a college readiness assessment such as the ACT in future years.

System Revisions Continue

As revisions to the A-F report cards are considered, the department and the governor’s office are continuing to work with the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Florida-based think tank founded and led by Jeb Bush. The foundation was involved in the initial implementation of Oklahoma’s A-F system under former superintendent Janet Barresi.

In an email dated April 6, obtained by Oklahoma Watch, the foundation outlines its model system for school accountability under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The report was emailed to Jake Yunker, deputy policy director for Gov. Mary Fallin, and copied to Hofmeister and several other education department administrators.

The foundation emphasizes in the email that the recommendations are strictly a draft framework until the U.S. Department of Education releases final regulations.

Its model relies on three measures given “substantial” weight: academic achievement, English language proficiency and another academic indicator such as growth or the graduation rate. Additional indicators could be added with less influence on the overall grade.

Oklahoma’s current system does not measure English language proficiency, but it will be required under the ESSA.

Oklahoma’s letter grades evaluate schools using two equally weighted categories: student performance, measured by the percent of students achieving a passing rate on state tests, and student growth, comprised of overall student growth and bottom 25th percentile student growth.

Schools receive bonus points on markers such as school attendance, dropout and graduation rates. The result is a single, simplified letter grade.

Critics, however, say it’s too simplified, and the process obscures the performance of poor and minority students. University researchers who evaluated the state system recommend focusing instead on college and career readiness and grading schools with a more detailed profile that does not summarize with a single grade, but instead includes scores in multiple areas, such as student progress, college and career readiness and achievement gaps.