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New research shows racial gaps in Oklahoma student test scores

[File Art/Unsplash]
[File Art/Unsplash]

A pioneering study of Oklahoma student test scores revealed troubling results while setting the path for public education in the state for the next decade.

New state research found minority children had lower test scores than their white peers, even when the only apparent differentiating factor was the color of their skin or their ethnicity, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Students of color consistently scored lower in math and English language arts across multiple grade levels, even when they were not economically disadvantaged, weren’t English language learners and had no disability, the state agency reported.

“We’ve never looked at it this way ever in our state’s history. We are the first state in the country to do this,” State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “Now, it’s unmasking what has really been happening all along.”

By 2030, the state aims to have all students proficient in every tested subject area. This means all Oklahoma students would meet national proficiency standards, which indicate they are prepared for the next grade level and are on track to be college ready.

State data shows 37% of white students in Oklahoma scored high enough to be considered proficient in tested subjects. However, 33% of Native American students, 31% of Hispanic students and only 24% of black students met the same target. Students identified as Asian/Pacific Islander were the only minority group to match the proficiency of white students at 37%.

Students facing socioeconomic, language and disability challenges were even further behind. Of all economically disadvantaged students, 22% scored high enough to be proficient along with only 20% of students learning English as a second language. Ten percent of students with disabilities were considered proficient on state tests.

The state discovered this data by placing students into priority groups designated by race and ethnicity, disability, English language learners and economically disadvantaged, said Maria Harris, executive director of accountability for the state department of education.

Students were grouped by race and ethnicity only when they didn’t belong to any of the other categories. No student was counted in more than one group.

Harris presented the new research to the state Board of Education during its meeting Thursday.

“We know that some groups of students may need more robust supports and a longer period of time to get where we need them to be to meet our long-term goals by 2030,” Harris said. “We’re saying that the first step in all of this is for schools to be aware of how those students are performing.”

If certain students applied to more than one prioritized group, such as if they were both economically disadvantaged and had a disability, they were grouped by the factor mostly likely to affect their academic performance.

For example, Harris said having a disability has shown to have a greater effect on academic achievement than socioeconomic differences. So, a student who applied to both categories would belong to the prioritized disability group, not the economically disadvantaged group.

Students who didn’t come from poorer families, weren’t learning English as a second language and had no disabilities were grouped by race. This is when the state found students of color still underperformed, even with other factors removed.

Carlisha Bradley, the only African American member of the state Board of Education, said racial differences alone could affect a child’s life.

“We can look at this data and see disparate outcomes for populations of color and wonder: Is the school failing?” Bradley said during the board meeting. “But really, there are systemic inequities that compound, that are impacting student achievement even outside of the four walls of a classroom.”

The widest gaps between white and minority students were found in typically high-performing school districts, Hofmeister said. Bridging that divide will take years, particularly for high school students who could be multiple grade levels behind.

“Looking at this is a tough pill to swallow,” board member Jennifer Monies said. “It begs the question of why, and it begs the question in each school why, which I think is something that has been masked, especially in some of our suburban school districts.”

Scores from annual standardized English and math tests served as the basis for elementary and middle school data. The state used ACT and SAT scores to determine 11th-grade English and math proficiency.

Researchers converted the ACT, the SAT and annual state tests into a 200-399 scale and found the median scale score for each prioritized group. Students who scored at least 300 are considered proficient in a subject area.

Harris said the state’s 2030 goal is an “aggressive target” given how far some students have to go to reach proficiency. The state will set target goals that increase each year for the prioritized groups.

For example, students with disabilities had a median score of 261 in 11th-grade English language arts in 2018. They would have to jump by four scale-score points each year for 10 years to reach 100% proficiency by 2028.

“To have all of our students there, it’s a pretty robust goal, and we want everyone there,” Hofmeister said.

Teacher preparedness is the No. 1 correlation to student success, the superintendent said. The state has also emphasized trauma as a critical factor affecting children’s academic performance.

The United Health Foundation found Oklahoma had the highest percentage of any state for adverse childhood experiences, including physical and sexual abuse, neglect, in-home substance abuse, parental incarceration and divorce.

Black children are nearly twice as likely to face two or more of these traumatic experiences as white children, according to the foundation’s annual report, America’s Health Rankings. Hispanic children have the next highest prevalence of two or more adverse childhood experiences.

The state department of education has heavily emphasized trauma awareness in schools over the past year. Data on prioritized student groups is available on the state department website in academic achievement reports for each school.

“We have a lot of work to do in Oklahoma,” Hofmeister said. “This is a different age. This is a different time, and it’s also got to be a time of understanding the need to support classrooms and kids, and that’s where we are catching up.”

Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel joined The Oklahoman in 2019. She found a home at the newspaper while interning in summer 2016 and 2017. Nuria returned to The Oklahoman for a third time after working a year and a half at the Sedalia Democrat in Sedalia,... Read more ›

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