Failing Students

Image of Janet Barresi

Third graders in Oklahoma public schools will start getting retained this year under state law if they don’t pass a reading test.

Supporters of the 2011 Reading Sufficiency Act, which mandates retention starting this year if students fail the test, cloak it in sanctimonious language about helping children, but it’s really part of a unified conservative effort to damage the credibility of public schools.

Retaining an elementary-school student should be a holistic decision made by teachers, parents and school administrators based on a variety of factors, not just one proficiency test. Excessive, high-stakes testing in our schools is definitely political, not educational.

The test is given in April. According to a news report, 869 students in the Oklahoma City Public Schools district didn’t pass the test last year when the retention rule was not in effect. If the number is anyway close to that this year, it could create a simple logistics nightmare.

Here’s how the conservative attack on public schools works: Create universal difficult tests that don’t take into account individual student development and home life, force teachers to teach to the tests and then demean teachers and students when the results don’t meet arbitrary expectations.

Everyone thinks students should be able to read at a competent level, but there are a variety of factors that contribute to or inhibit a student’s ability to learn. For example, what if a student lives in an abusive or overly dysfunctional home in which literacy is not privileged? What if a student is hungry?

But the larger issue is that those who seem most adamant about high-stakes testing—primarily conservatives—are some of the same people who have systematically defunded Oklahoma schools. Since 2008, per-student funding in Oklahoma has dropped by 22.8 percent, the steepest in the nation.

It’s a classic “starve the beast” tactic, even if that term is not widely used anymore. Starve the schools of money, increase class sizes, limit individual attention to students, place the emphasis on testing and blame teachers for the result. Once that has been accomplished, conservatives can then push for privatization of schools and vouchers.

Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, who is facing serious challenges to her re-election this year, seems to be always ready with the sanctimonious language about student achievement, which never acknowledges opposition to the conservative agenda with our schools here. Barresi recently referred to the new retention law this way:

It is a tragedy when a child in our public schools cannot read. In tomorrow's world, the inability to read is a sentence to a lower quality of life. This won't happen on my watch. Oklahoma has great teachers who will help make this law succeed.

Again, no one can argue against the idea that students should be able to read. But the idea that Barresi and other conservatives here are behind “great teachers” is nothing but a myth. Our “great teachers” are some of the lowest paid in the nation. They work under a great deal of testing stress and are constantly the universal fodder of politic attacks by many conservatives, who, above all else, despise teacher unions.

Right now, the state faces a teacher shortage because our surrounding states care more about education and pay their teachers more than we do under our dominant conservative leadership.

Eventually, there will be political change here, but Oklahoma seems poised for the next few years, anyway, to continue the attack on public education through defunding public schools and creating systems designed to produce failure. The state, for example, faces a $170 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year and conservatives are clamoring for tax cuts again. Where do you get teacher raises out of that scenario?

In order not to just be negative, let me offer some ideas: Give teachers raises and boost their morale in other ways. Hire more teachers. Reduce class sizes. Ensure schools have the best equipment and textbooks to encourage learning. Give students more individual attention when it comes to reading and other subjects. Privilege parental input when it comes to the issue of retaining students.

Of course, that’s just crazy talk around this neck of the woods.