Tahlequah Daily Press

July 5, 2013

Barresi testing plan met with skepticism

Local residents, as well as challengers for the state’s top education office, worry about the future of students.

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi announced recently the state’s plan to back out of a standardized testing consortium and develop its own system for gauging student progress.

Problems with the current computer-generated testing system were reported throughout Oklahoma this past spring, as well as in several other states. Some students were required to retake entire tests, while others only had to restart their computers and proceed from where the glitch occurred.

According to a report by the Associated Press, Barresi cited parental concerns, technological readiness of the state’s public schools and higher anticipated costs as prompting her decision.

Oklahoma is currently a member of the multistate Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. A recent state survey found only 33 percent of school sites in Oklahoma are technologically prepared for PARCC testing. Barresi said the technological shortfall could prevent districts from meeting Common Core Standards by 2015.

Barresi is up for re-election in 2014, and one local lawmaker believes her move is politically motivated. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, said Barresi is placing the blame for lack of preparedness on the wrong shoulders.

“What she is doing now is she is attempting to blame schools for lack of preparedness on their part with regard to technology,” said Brown. “This reminds me of the typical attitude of a bully: When they’re caught red-handed bullying, they blame the kid they’re bullying. She’s blaming the teachers for not being prepared, but she hired McGraw Hill [the testing company involved in the consortium] to do the testing, and it was a complete failure. What she wants to do now is politically motivated. She’s pandering to the pressure from within her own caucus.”

Brown said the current method bypasses the role of the teacher.

“Used to, there were teachers, educators, counselors involved in setting up committees to come together in PASS objectives to analyze the outcomes quarterly,” said Brown. “Now we’re going to open Pandora’s box, saying, ‘Bring us more tests and we’ll buy them.’ I sat in  on three or four education tasks forces. These testing folks line up to sell us their wares.”

He believes the key is returning the testing formulation to a local level to include all involved in the learning process, but doubts it will happen.

“Now we’re saying we want to pick and choose and we want to set the rules, but only one person is setting those rules now – someone with no education experience,” said Brown. “Everyone wants to make schools better, but whenever you have to bend to political whims, it’s not the right thing to do.”

Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, has 44 years’ experience in education, teaching at all levels from elementary school to higher education to career tech. He said he would favor moving out of the consortium, with one caveat.

“I’m in favor of that as long as they’ll go to OU or OSU and involve their testing people in constructing new testing instruments,” said Garrison. “They [State Board of Education members] don’t have the expertise up there to do it on their own. They lack the skills to formulate those tests. You can find better people who are skilled in test construction.”

Garrison said skilled input is needed to get accurate testing results.

“If you’re going to hold a school accountable on how kids do, you have to manage control variables,” said Garrison. “If you don’t control for single-parent homes, poverty, etc., your data is bad.”

Garrison is also concerned about the cost of contracting with a new company.

“I’m not going to sign off on providing $100,000 to bring people in to do it,” said Garrison. “It would be a wonderful project for those universities and graduate students in Oklahoma.”

Garrison said the glitches in testing this past spring caused irreparable damage.

“I think they ought to throw all the tests out this year,” said Garrison. “Those scores will be worse than worthless. Poor data is worse than no data. [Barresi] ought to throw all that out and just forget about it. The problem you have with our superintendent is her tremendous lack of educational experience. As a result, public schools suffer. Public schools made this country what it is. I’ve never been much on reform.”

Barresi’s lack of experience in the education arena, couple with some of her controversial actions, have spurred early challenges to her office.

Peggs School Superintendent Dr. John Cox recently announced he’s formed an exploratory committee and may run against Barresi in 2014. Like Garrison and Brown, Cox believes testing instruments for Oklahoma students should be generated here.

“I think we ought to go back to having Oklahoma-made tests,” said Cox. “I like the concept of Common Core, but I think it takes away local control. Garrison makes a good point in having OU, OSU or even regional universities like Northeastern State University involved in test construction. We don’t need to look outside our state for intellect. We have plenty of good people right here.”

He agrees many of Barresi’s recent decisions are politically motivated.

“With her backing off, looking at new tests, it looks good, but I think we need to have teachers who teach those courses involved. They are the ones who know what is needed  in their individual districts,” said Cox. “I noticed she’s made a few moves to soften things and maybe get ready to run [for re-election], and this is one of them. She’s also moved teacher evaluations back [beyond the election] to appease teachers.”

Cox is beginning his 20th year as a superintendent and his 28th year as an educator. He is an adjunct professor of education at NSU, teaching leadership and administration courses to aspiring principals and superintendents and educational research to master’s candidates. He earned a Doctorate in Educational Administration and an Educational Specialist degree from OSU, a Master’s degree in Counseling, and Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics Education from NSU. He is president of the Organization of Rural Elementary Schools  and vice chairman of the Oklahoma Schools Assurance Group.

Cox also participates on the NSU College of Education Advisory Board and he is a co-chairman of the Vision Committee sponsored by the Oklahoma State School Board Association and the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration. He served on the ACE Steering Committee as the state superintendent’s appointee and has participated on the State Superintendent’s Advisory Group.

“It is time to stand up for the great things we are doing in public education and continue to work hard for the betterment of our children,” said Cox. “We have too many assessments, and we need to have a strong conversation about accountability from the local districts on up.”

Joy Hofmeister, of Tulsa, resigned her post on the State Board of Education this year, and she, too, plans to run for Barresi’s seat. She agrees testing instruments should be developed by a cadre of education specialists and others.

“As state superintendent working on behalf of common education, it is essential to work with representatives from our state’s colleges, universities and career technology education centers, legislative leadership, community partners, as well as the governor’s office, when making a decision of such significant statewide impact,” said Hofmeister. “This decision has a domino effect, with both intended and unintended consequences. Such decisions should never be made in haste or come as a surprise to stakeholders.”

Hofmeister believes Oklahomans need high-quality, vetted assessments that provide parents and education professionals with reliable and meaningful information on student achievement, plus preparedness for college and the work force.

“In order for policymakers, parents and educators to gauge the effectiveness of state-driven forms, it is important that Oklahoma’s chosen student assessment system produce data that is comparable to other state student assessment systems,” said Hofmeister.

Hofmeister is a former public school teacher with a bachelor’s in education from Texas Christian University and teaching certificates in English and Elementary Education. Today, she is president Kumon of South Tulsa. She serves on the board of directors for the Jenks Public Schools Foundation, Select Committee for Study of School Finance, and has served on curriculum adoption committees at the district level, as well as curriculum advisory committees for Kumon North America. She has worked with Special Education teams, parent advocates, and students on an Individual Education Plan.

She also has participated in the Trends in International Math and Science Study research testing.

Seasoned educators aren’t the only ones concerned about Barresi’s proposal. The Daily Press asked its Facebook friends their impressions about Barresi’s testing decision, and the results were mixed.

“After reading [a recent article in a metro newspaper], I find it interesting that she basically blamed the school districts and the district IT people for the problem with testing,” said Tammy Delmedico, an eighth-grade science teacher in Fort Gibson. “To my knowledge, the only testing problems we had at my district were related to the testing company’s server crash, but Barresi downplays that, which makes me wonder, why she didn’t put any blame on them?”

Local resident Steve Cypert agrees the state’s schools are handicapped when it comes to having the appropriate technology in place.

“Janet is right about the lack of sufficient computer muscle to handle the testing demands that were made last school year,” said Cypert. “Common Core standards are well-established, so it isn’t like reinventing the wheel. I’m willing to keep an open mind. Politics being what it is, though, I’d want to know more about how the ‘publisher’ who will be chosen to sell the required literature to our schools is connected to Janet or her political constituents.”

Renee Wright, also of Tahlequah, dislikes the testing to which her daughter is subjected.

“I will be digging in on this,” said Wright. “I hate that my daughter spends half the year studying for a ‘test’ to prove she’s ‘learned’ something,” said Wright. “I hate even more that, at 12, the only thing she knows about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights is what I, the parent, have taught her. If I had my way, the dirty tentacles of Big Brother wouldn’t be involved in my children’s schools.”