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Oklahoma leaders have no more important obligation than ensuring that schoolchildren receive a world-class education. A big part of that responsibility involves setting high educational standards. But when it comes to implementing the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state is falling short.
NCLB is often described as a one-size-fits-all federal mandate, but it actually gives states a great deal of latitude to set standards as they see fit. States decide what students need to know, how to test that knowledge and what score on the test counts as "proficient." States also set standards under NCLB for school performance, teacher qualifications, school safety, high school graduation rates and much more.
Unfortunately for students, NCLB standards in Oklahoma appear to be unusually lax. In recent years, a host of national organizations and research groups have analyzed Oklahoma's standards and found them wanting.
Education Sector, a nonpartisan education think tank, recently compared state reports of education progress on a variety of measures to objective national data. It found Oklahoma is overstating educational progress relative to other states. According to the federally administered National Assessment of Education Progress, Oklahoma students are well below average in reading and math—ranking 38th, for example, in fourth-grade reading. But the state-administered test tells a different story, putting the state in the top 10 nationwide. Parents are getting a false impression of where their children really stand.
Paul Peterson, a Harvard University professor, and Rick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recently graded all 50 states based on the rigor of state tests. Oklahoma was one of only two states in the nation to receive an overall grade of "F."
The National Center for Teaching Quality gave Oklahoma a "C-minus" for its teaching standards—a lower grade than most surrounding states. The Education Trust, which advocates for low-income and minority students, rated the accuracy of state high school graduation rates. Once again, Oklahoma fell below most of its neighbors.
This pattern extends to the way Oklahoma measures school performance under NCLB. Last year, the state reported that 97 percent of schools met the mark, the highest rate in the nation. But it wasn't because Oklahoma has the nation's best schools. It was because the state inserted a series of adjustments and loopholes into its NCLB school rating system that have the effect of taking pressure off schools that need to improve. As a result, students in low-performing schools are denied access to free tutoring services and the chance to transfer to a better school within their district.
To be clear, nearly all of these provisions were approved by the U.S. Department of Education. Oklahoma isn't violating the letter of NCLB. It's violating the spirit, by failing to set high standards of performance for students and educators.
Today's students need access to world-class academic standards and an educational system that is constantly challenging itself to improve. The data suggest Oklahoma's educational leaders have yet to meet that goal.