By Nate Robson, Oklahoma Watch
For the third year in a row, Oklahoma will not give a standardized writing test next spring that counts toward a student’s score or a school’s letter grade.
That means the state is paying a vendor at least tens of thousands of dollars for a test that yields no results.
An August 24 bulletin from the state Department of Education addressed to school district test coordinators says the writing exam will only be a field test, which is used to create test questions for the following school year.
The state also could forego an official writing test in spring 2017 because the spring 2016 field test will be based on current academic standards due to be replaced. Another field test based on new standards may need to be done in 2017 before offering a valid writing test in 2018.
The repeated suspensions of a gradable writing test have raised questions among some lawmakers about whether the Education Department is violating state law. They also reflect the difficulties the state has had with the writing exam, which has twice been thrown out due to concerns about the validity of test scores.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has said she would prefer to get rid of the writing test and use that money instead to help pay for teacher salary hikes.
The state pays about $8.8 million a year on math and English language arts exams, which includes the writing test, given to students in third through eighth grades. The writing test is given only to fifth and eighth graders, and the Education Department said it does not know how much would be saved by eliminating the test.
In the meantime, the state is paying a test vendor, Measured Progress, the full contracted amount for not administering a gradable test. The state did not administer a field test this past spring, and later tossed out the gradable portion of the exam due to concerns about its validity.
Oklahoma’s writing exam is one of seven topics required by law to be tested between third and eighth grade. Other topics are math, English, science, social studies, U.S. history and geography. Writing is the only test that needs to be graded manually. State law also requires separate field testing to develop the exam.
State Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, a member of the House Common Education Committee, said there are concerns in the Legislature that only giving a field test fails to meet state law.
Even so, “there’s no penalty in the law, so I’m really not sure what the consequences would be,” Nelson said.
Sonya Fitzgerald, executive director of state testing, said when the department eliminated field testing in 2015, it knew that this meant a usable test would likely not be in place for 2016.
The move followed Hofmeister’s campaign promise to reduce testing.
Fitzgerald said the department is still meeting its legal obligation by only offering field tests next spring.
“We are required to go through field testing and other checks to make sure we are providing reliable tests,” Fitzgerald said. “I do feel this meets the requirements for the law, though I am not an attorney.”
Writing test scores were first thrown out in 2014 under then-Superintendent Janet Barresi. Nearly 38 percent of students received the same score, a 2 out of 4, raising concerns about the validity of the results.
Hofmeister announced a cut to field testing for the 2015 tests within weeks of taking office. At the time, she said eliminating field testing would reduce the time students spent on the test, allowing them to spend more time studying in the classroom.
The Education Department threw out the scores from the actual exam in June due to concerns about the reliability of the test. Department officials said those concerns were unrelated to the problems seen in 2014.
School administrators and teachers, though, said they again saw a large number of students receiving the same scores.
About 33 percent of students scored a 2 on the 2015 exam. As in 2014, that pattern could be found in all graded categories of the test.
Barresi, who lost the Republican primary to Hofmeister last year, said that’s because both tests used the same flawed rubric for grading.
That rubric, a guideline for scoring, said that if students copied and pasted large amounts of texts when writing their answers – as opposed to referencing texts using their own words – the highest score they could get was a 2.
The results showed many schools are struggling to properly teach students how to cite sources and texts by fifth grade, Barresi said.
The rubric also failed to properly guide evaluation of the original content written by students. After invalidating the 2014 scores, Barresi said she directed staff to make a new rubric for 2015.
The person tasked with creating that rubric was fired by Hofmeister when her administration took over in January 2015, and the new rubric was never finished.
Fitzgerald, who worked under both Hofmeister and Barresi, said she was unaware of plans to create a new rubric.
For 2016, the state will use the rubric from the 2012 exam, which is aligned with the state’s old Priority Academic Student Skills standards. The 2014 and 2015 rubric was designed for the Common Core academic standards, which the state repealed.
Barresi accused Hofmeister of intentionally undercutting the exam in an attempt to eliminate it. A series of ACT tests that Hofmeister has pushed the state to adopt does not including a writing component, Barresi said.
“To the public, it seemed she (Joy) was reducing testing,” Barresi said of eliminating field testing in 2015. “In reality, she was negating the test. She knew she would not be able to put together an operational test for this spring.”
Hofmeister said she is committed to writing instruction in Oklahoma and to implementing a valid tool to evaluate students.
Deana Silk, a spokeswoman for Hofmeister, criticized Barresi for attacking Hofmeister after she herself invalidated the writing scores in 2014.
“It is obvious this is a broken system that Superintendent Hofmeister inherited weeks after inauguration,” Silk said. “She did not want to waste student instruction time or flush away taxpayer dollars on field testing that would perpetuate a broken system.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to www.oklahomawatch.org.