September 8, 2004
By Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster
Oklahoma students rank 33rd in the nation for academic achievement. At first glance that might not seem like cause to celebrate. But a new study by the Manhattan Institute finds that Oklahoma produces low scores only because its students face more challenges than those in other states.
Remove the effects of student characteristics and Oklahoma schools rank a much more heartening 18th in the nation.
The best comparison we have for states' academic outcomes is eighth-grade scores on the Nation's Report Card, a test administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Scores for eighth grade are preferable because they're the oldest grade for which state-by-state comparisons are available.
By this yardstick, Oklahoma schools don't look good. In reading, 74 percent of Oklahoma students reach the "basic" level of achievement, the lowest level recognized by the test. In math, 65 percent of students reach the "basic" level.
These scores rank Oklahoma 33rd in the nation. However, there's more to the story than meets the eye. Some students come to school more ready to learn than others because of factors beyond the schools' control.
Oklahoma's students are worse off than the national average in areas affecting students' ability to learn. They're poorer and less healthy, they're more likely to be victimized by crime or to come from broken homes.
The Manhattan Institute study systematically measured the levels of 16 social factors that researchers agree affect student outcomes. We combined this data into a single measurement we call the "Teachability Index."
By examining each state's academic performance and its score on this index, we were able to measure which states' schools were performing badly and which just looked bad because of student characteristics. We compared the actual academic performance of students in each state to the level of performance we would statistically expect those students to achieve given the extent of their disadvantages.
Some states did significantly better than we would expect based on their students' characteristics. Oklahoma schools do substantially better than their student demographics would predict.
Levels of the student disadvantages we measured were 12.5 percent worse than the national average in Oklahoma. Taking these disadvantages into account, we find Oklahoma's student achievement is 105 percent of what we would expect it to be. This ranks Oklahoma 18th among the states in academic outcomes adjusted for student characteristics.
Not every state with similarly disadvantaged student populations did as well as Oklahoma. Louisiana students have disadvantages 16.5 percent worse than the national average but performed at only 93 percent of expectations, ranking them 41st in the nation in the adjusted achievement comparison.
By contrast, Texas students have disadvantages 19.8 percent worse than average but perform at 110 percent of expectations, ranking them fourth in the nation.
What accounts for Oklahoma schools' good performance? State policies allowing for more school choice, including charter schools, choice policies within the regular public system and light regulation of homeschooling helped improve Oklahoma's schools.
States with more school choice have significantly better academic outcomes after student characteristics are taken into account. This adds to a solid body of research finding that choice improves the academic achievement of disadvantaged students by giving schools a powerful incentive to serve them better.
Oklahoma's schools deserve credit for their performance.
Greene is a senior fellow and Forster is a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office (www.miedresearchoffice.org).
Copyright © 2004 The Daily Oklahoman