Students at Lincoln Elementary School in Norman raise their hands to ask a question. (Megan Ross)

(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)

Advocates for students with disabilities, minority students and low-income students were among the stakeholders who weighed in on the state’s plan for education under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Some had recommendations adopted in the final plan, which was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education last month.

Others say their concerns were brushed aside.

Under ESSA, which replaced No Child Left Behind, all states were required to develop a plan detailing how school performance will be measured, achievement gaps will be narrowed and federal education dollars will be spent. Oklahoma’s plan sets big goals, including reducing the use of emergency-certified teachers by 95 percent and boosting high school graduation to 90 percent.

All states have now submitted a plan. All of those submitted in the spring have been approved, and the 34 fall submissions are awaiting feedback.

In creating Oklahoma’s plan, the state Education Department solicited feedback from Oklahomans beginning in the summer of 2016. It received more than 3,200 online survey responses, 278 live poll responses during the department’s summer conference and 50 emailed comments.

Oklahoma Watch reviewed the emailed comments and poll results to discern what the major concerns were, and whether they were heeded. The top concerns include:

State tests are given in English, and in some cases Spanish, no matter what a student’s native language is

ESSA requires states to “make every effort to develop assessments, at a minimum, in languages other than English” that are spoken by a significant portion of the student population. Oklahoma defines “significant” as more than 5 percent, and Spanish-speaking students are the only group that exceeds that threshold. But there are at least 2,300 English Language Learner students who speak primarily Vietnamese, Cherokee and Marshallese who wouldn’t receive test materials in their native language unless the district opted to provide it.

Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, said he believes Oklahoma’s plan won’t meet the federal requirements for serving English Language Learner students.

“(English learners) will not be properly tested,” he said. “There are assessments that have to be done, and certain things would be done much better if they were given in their native languages.”

Oklahoma provides spoken Spanish language translations of content areas to students for state tests, and in 2017-18 will make available Spanish translated test forms for math and science. An earlier version of the plan said Oklahoma doesn’t offer assessments to students in languages other than English because “Oklahoma is an English-only state,” but that phrase was stricken from the final version.

For school accountability, Oklahoma students are counted in one subgroup, and economically disadvantaged is prioritized over other categories

A letter from the National Down Syndrome Congress and The Advocacy Institute said the method appears to be a violation of ESSA. They estimated 74 percent of Oklahoma students with disabilities are economically disadvantaged, meaning three out of four students with disabilities will not be counted in the students with disabilities subgroup.

“That approach is really not allowed under the statute. It’s truly designed to prevent a school, a district, a state, to not be dinged more than once for a kid who belongs to a lot of those groups,” said Candace Cortiella, director of The Advocacy Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that provided feedback to more than 30 states’ ESSA plans. Students who belong to more than one group tend to have more significant challenges than those who just fall into one group, she added.

Ruiz, too, is critical of this approach and believes it violates students’ civil rights, especially because it sets different goals for each group. “We’re definitely an outlier,” he said. “I have no doubt the intent was good, but the repercussions of this line of thinking and the precedent this sets…could be extremely damaging.”

Massachusetts and Tennessee will be using a similar system of goal-setting by subgroup, and both states’ plans have been approved. Tennessee even uses a “super subgroup,” combining black, Hispanic and Native American students into one. In Oklahoma’s plan, the goals for all students are the same by 2025; the Massachusetts and Tennessee plans expect gains from all groups and but don’t expect minority students to ever fully close the achievement gap.

Under ESSA, states are required to sum up a school’s performance in some way, but aren’t required to use a letter grade, as Oklahoma has chosen to do

Stakeholders railed against the use of A-F, including the Oklahoma Education Association, which wrote the department’s insistence in continuing to use an A-F grading system “has engendered mistrust and animosity” and “fails to reflect the nuances and complexities of our public schools.” The Oklahoma Education Association is the state’s largest teacher’s union. In one survey of 278 educators, just 10 percent said the most important goal of state tests should be for school accountability (the most popular answer was measuring growing of individual students year-to-year.) Oklahoma is one of 12 states using letter grades; the majority of states are using a dashboard to display the different accountability measures.

Oklahoma’s plan requires every student in middle and high school to complete an Individual Career Academic Plan annually and much of the work will be completed by school counselors. The board of the Oklahoma School Counselor Association is concerned schools place too many non-counseling assignments on counselors, such as serving as a test coordinator, taking time away from duties they are professionally trained to do.

“If you want this plan to be successful, school counselors must be allowed to devote their time to implementing the pieces that fall within their role,” they wrote.

They urged the state to include an assurance that counselors would be relieved of non-counseling assignments to implement ESSA, and the department added this sentence to the plan: “Through implementation of ICAPs and other reforms, including state assessments, Oklahoma intends for counselors to refocus their efforts on career and postsecondary exploration and planning for students.”

In one survey stakeholders were asked: How do we ensure all students are successful? Their answers include:

  • Give students opportunities
  • Adequately compensate teachers
  • Funding
  • Collective efforts
  • Slow down process of government over-reach
  • Remove unfunded mandates
  • Hold high expectations for students and educators
  • Human needs must be met
  • Meet needs of diverse learners, including English learners

Another survey asked: Which is most critical to improving a low-performing school? The top three responses were: student/family/community support, effective leaders and school culture.