They are some of the indelible images of youth for generations of Americans educated in public schools: sharpened-but-not-too-sharp No. 2 pencils, “bubbling” score cards and long, mysterious booklets filled with daunting questions. Standardized tests are as much a part of the school experience as Homecoming and mystery-meat lunches. Oklahoma is no different, and in recent years the Sooner State has adopted an evolving program of standardized testing aimed at measuring student proficiency and progress. However, testing today is different than in decades past – and it is continuing to evolve.
“There is no national testing like there used to be,” says Dr. Maridyth McBee, Oklahoma’s assistant superintendent for Accountability and Assessment. She adds that although some school districts might utilize standardized tests available nationwide, they are individual district decisions. “The companies still sell those tests; they just aren’t used statewide.”
Instead of old-time standbys like the Stanford Achievement Test, Oklahoma employs the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Tests (OCCT) for students in elementary and middle school.
For the OCCT, Reading and Math tests are administered in Grades 3-8; Science, Social Studies, and Writing are given in Grade 5; Geography is given in Grade 7; and Science, U.S. History and Writing are given in Grade 8.
“An education reform bill in the mid-1990s established the testing requirements,” McBee says.
According to the Oklahoma State Testing Program (OSTP), two variations of the test are available for students that meet certain requirements and criteria.
High school students’ progress is measured in the other primary round of standardized testing in Oklahoma. ACE English II, ACE English III, ACE Algebra I, ACE Algebra II, ACE Geometry, ACE Biology I, and ACE U.S. History are given as End-of-Instruction (EOI) tests in high school.
“There are also comparable tests for students in special education,” McBee says.
Available evidence demonstrates that student achievement is improving, according to McBee. “Every time we give the tests, a certain number of students score proficient or advanced and that number goes up every year except for those years when the standards are changed. You can’t compare some of the original tests with those today because the standards have been raised,” she says.
McBee also cites results from the ACT, the most common test in Oklahoma for students seeking college admission.
“We’ve been looking at ACT scores and they are trending upward,” McBee adds. “The improvement isn’t dramatic in all subgroups. Native American student scores are up quite a lot, for example. We think we can validate the testing because of these scores.”
While McBee says that there is no movement to adopt additional tests, change is coming in the evaluation of student progress and their classroom experiences. In the near future, student scores will be contextualized through a process still in development, to reflect the fact that, as McBee says, “Not all students come to school as prepared as others.”
Additionally, teacher/leader evaluations are on the horizon, in addition to test-score based evaluation.
“Down the road, Oklahoma is going to have teacher/leader evaluations made by various criteria,” McBee says. “This will include personal evaluations by their supervisors. Test scores will be looked at, too; not the raw scores, but rather the value-added scores that take other factors into consideration.”
The coming new evaluation process is dictated by legislative requirement – and McBee points out that other states are also moving in the same direction. Implementing the process remains underway as education leaders identify ways to quantify factors that can impact test scores. “We requested a delay of full implementation until we are able to find ways to include all academic measures,” McBee says.
Classroom and teacher evaluation is one of the several controversial aspects related to monitoring the effectiveness of Oklahoma schools. Generally, labor unions representing educators push back against using standardized test data to evaluate individual or groups of teachers. McBee says she is aware of this and that she tries to communicate with teachers so that they understand test scores will be evaluated in context and not in a uniform fashion.
Still, McBee says, “Until everyone is able to internalize how we are going to progress, I think there will be some consternation.”
Another controversial aspect of mandatory standardized testing is many educators’ claims that it forces teachers to “teach to the test,” instead of a broader, more nuanced approach. McBee, however, says that perspective does not reflect what the state’s testing program actually requires of students.
“’Teaching to the test’ is just not the case,” she says. “The tests don’t just ask for facts. Students are asked to evaluate facts and to come to conclusions. They are application based. They don’t require students to just know a lot of straight facts.”
McBee believes overall that standardized testing helps ensure that students in all regions, in often very different communities and from different economic backgrounds are provided the same opportunities.
“Having been in education for quite a while, I was around when there was no testing,” McBee says. “I saw disparity in classrooms. Schools with a great deal of poverty were vastly inferior to those that did not. Being able to test all students, to see where they start off at, where we need to work and perform better, is progress. It concerned me that not every student was having the same experience and opportunity.
“I strongly believe that standardized testing in Oklahoma serves a very good purpose,” McBee adds.
For more information on standardized tests in Oklahoma, visit the state Department of Education website, www.ok.gov/sde.
Ed. note: Oklahoma Magazine requested comment from the Oklahoma Education Association, Tulsa Public Schools, Oklahoma City Public Schools and Broken Arrow Public Schools representatives. At press time, officials were unavailable for comment.