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About the State Regents Certifying PASS

October 19, 2014

Much has happened here in Oklahoma while most of the school districts in the state have been on Fall Break the last few days. Below is the short version of lastweek’s events, with links to more information about each.

Regents Certify PASS

State to Reapply for NCLB Waiver

SBE Authorizes Fundraising Exemptions

SBE Selects Measured Progress for Winter Testing

For now, I’ll just focus on what happened Thursday. Hopefully I’ll have some serious blogging time this week to get to the rest, as well as the two major political races that impact public education.

Thursday – the State Regents and the Waiver

We knew last week that the State Regents would finally decide whether or not to certify PASS as College and Career Ready, but their decision had remained pretty secretive. After cross-walking PASS to ACT’s standards, the committees in place for both language arts and math determined that there was significant alignment between them. This decision befuddled our current state superintendent.

Posted by SDE media on Thu, 10/16/2014 – 5:15pm

OKLAHOMA CITY (Oct. 16, 2014) – State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi comments on the Oklahoma Regent’s for Higher Education decision to consider Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) standards college- and career-ready.

“I am confused and unsettled by this decision. My understanding of the definition of college- and career-ready standards is that students who graduate high school should be able to enter college without needing to take remedial coursework or enter a career without the need for retraining. In Oklahoma, our college remediation rate for entering freshman has hovered at about 40 percent for years. With that said, however, I am withholding further comment until I have had time to thoroughly review the Regents’ findings.

“In light of the Regents’ decision, however, we have already begun the process of reapplying for our flexibility waiver from No Child Left Behind. If a waiver is granted, the U.S. Department of Education has indicated it would not take effect until the 2015-2016 school year.”

Barresi has a history of using loaded adjectives when she doesn’t get her way. It’s unfathomable to her that actual Oklahoma educators could create a set of standards with any merit. This doesn’t stop her from using the existing tests over those standards to rate schools, but that’s beside the point. The State Regents actually had a rationale. As the report explains:

ACT organizes its standards according to ACT score ranges. For example, for a score in the range of 16-19, ACT has identified standards that must be met to achieve a score in that range. For this review, standards corresponding to score ranges of 20-23 and 24-27 were used for alignment with the PASS standards. These score ranges were selected because OSRHE set the minimum ACT cut score for remediation in each of the four subject areas of English, Mathematics, Reading and Science based on OSRHE policies (3.19 Assessment Policy and 3.20 Remediation Policy) and previous research. In 1994, OSRHE established the requirement for all students to be remediated if they did not earn at least a 19 on the ACT Mathematics subject test. Approximately every five years, OSRHE contracts with ACT to conduct a course placement study using Oklahoma student data.

Review of these findings by COI is used to verify the ACT cut scores. The 2011 ACT study predicted that 74 percent of students with an ACT subject score of 19 would earn at least a grade of C in English composition, 63 percent in general mathematics, and 57 percent in college algebra. A brief summary table outlining this extensive study can be found in Attachment 8. In 2004, OSRHE received a final report from the Student Preparation Task Force recommending the continued use of the ACT standards as benchmark competencies. For 2014 Oklahoma high school graduates, students with an ACT score of 27 in English are in the 87th percentile; in Reading, the 82nd percentile; and in Mathematics, the 93rd percentile for Oklahoma test takers. [p. 9]

This is similar to a process the SDE and Regents completed 10 years ago, although I can’t find it online anywhere. The point is that Oklahoma, in the 20+ years we have been developing standards, has never operated within an insular vacuum. We have always had an eye on what’s going on elsewhere. Even four years ago, when the Oklahoma Legislature adopted the Common Core, the SDE took the time to crosswalk them to PASS.

The Regents used committees of higher education officials and professors for each set of standards, then had the Southern Regional Education Board check their work. Ironically, one of the SREB consultants was Jennifer Watson, who was promoted by Barresi to Assistant State Superintendent at one point. The committees and consultants have concerns about PASS, which include recommendations for improving the state standards.

Math [p. 11]

CONCERN 1: The ACT College and Career Readiness Standard for “work with numerical factors” did not appear to be specifically addressed in high school PASS, but it is necessary to demonstrate mastery of other high school skills, such as the PASS “simplify and evaluate linear, absolute value, rational and radical expressions” or “factor polynomial expressions.” Since “work with numerical factors” was at a score range of 24-27, there was much discussion about the intent of this standard. Upon review of some possible ACT questions, this standard seemed to imply more number-theory concepts than computational or procedural use.

RECOMMENDATION: Standards should be clear as to the intent of the standard to avoid differences in interpretation. For example, clarification may be needed to reflect a level of number theory or conceptual understanding rather than computational or procedural use.

CONCERN 2: In some instances, the wording of the Mathematics PASS standards was more vague than in the ACT standards, and the faculty had to decide whether the specific ACT standard was implied in the more general PASS standard. For example, the ACT standard is “recognize Pythagorean triples,” while the PASS standard is “Use the Pythagorean Theorem and its converse to find missing side lengths and to determine acute, right, and obtuse triangles, and verify using algebraic and deductive proofs.”

RECOMMENDATION: Specific wording from the ACT standards should be included in the more general PASS standard, such as a “must include” or “for example” insertion.

CONCERN 3: In some instances, the level of rigor may not be consistent from ACT to PASS. For example, the ACT standard of “order fractions” was addressed in PASS grades 5, 6 and 7. However, this ACT standard is at a score range of 24-27, which implies a higher level of rigor than typical middle school mathematics. The faculty members were concerned that the level of rigor expected by ACT might not be addressed in the high school PASS.

RECOMMENDATION: If they are considered maintenance skills, then the intent should be clearly stated in PASS standards with the appropriate level of rigor and/or the intent for how the standard should be used to increase the rigor of the high school standard.

CONCERN 4: Some Mathematics PASS standards are listed with an asterisk, meaning they are not assessed at the state level through the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Tests, and few of the process standards (problem-solving, communication, reasoning, connections and representation) are included in the state assessments.

RECOMMENDATION: The faculty recommends that all standards be included in the state assessments to reinforce the teaching of all standards to all students.

CONCERN 5: The faculty expressed concern that the high remediation rate in mathematics is not the result of the standards but is impacted by many other issues, such as assessment, curriculum, instruction, and type or number of mathematics courses taken in high school.

RECOMMENDATION: The faculty recommends that more efforts be made to emphasize the importance of implementing standards thoroughly, comprehensively and with fidelity; align curricula; and assess all standards.

In essence, they’re saying that the standards need tweaking in some places, and that high school course selection may account for a significant portion of the remediation rate.

English/Language Arts [p. 12]

CONCERN 1 (COHERENCE): While thorough and comprehensive, the intentional development of knowledge and skills across grades is not always transparent in the ELA PASS document.


  • A K-12 matrix, or scope and sequence, of the standards for each strand would show the progression of knowledge and skills through grade levels. Such a matrix would help teachers, supervisors, districts, parents and others to identify when students are introduced to a standard and at what point they are expected to have mastered it.
  • A reorganization of some of the standards and substandards under each strand would improve coherence. For example, Reading Standard 4, Research and Information, might be separated to help clarify that there are many purposes for reading informational and non-narrative texts beyond conducting research.
  • Stressing the interconnectedness in the skills and knowledge students need in order to develop college- and career-ready vocabulary would provide greater coherence within this critical standard. Context clues, structural analysis, wide reading, and reference tools work together and within a framework of the specific reading task. Consult best practices in the systematic teaching of vocabulary when new standards are being written.

CONCERN 2 (SPECIFICITY): In total, the language of ELA PASS is straightforward and specific; indeed, PASS is often more specific than the language of the ACT ELA College and Career Readiness Standards. In point, the committee found that the ACT College and Career Readiness Standards for English and Reading contain many examples of “vague language,” such as use of the phrase “and so on” to indicate other assumed but unnamed elements of a standard. However, some language of ELA PASS can be more specific.


  • Construct every learning standard statement with a verb that is “assessable.” Teachers, curriculum writers and test designers would appreciate the specificity of having students “defend,” “distinguish,” “estimate,” “paraphrase,” “predict” or “summarize” rather than “understand” or “appreciate.”
  • Specific language throughout the Reading and Writing standards that addresses both the interpretation and construction of critical text structures would underscore their importance. Students should be engaged every year in analyzing and composing texts that use cause/effect, problem/solution, complex narrative sequence, claim/counterclaim and other predominant structures.
  • Distinguish between argumentation and persuasion in writing standards. Argumentation is a common mode of writing in college and should be emphasized and practiced in middle school and high school.
  • Update the ELA PASS Glossary to provide definitions of a broader range of terms. Many will look to PASS to clarify what is meant by “complex texts,” “grade-appropriate” and “readability” (as examples).
  • A close review of substandards within the Grammar/Usage and Mechanics Standard at each grade level would resolve some vague expectations for student writers and editors.

CONCERN 3 (PURPOSE): The purpose-setting statement that frames ELA PASS should highlight some additional expectations for learners.


  • The five-paragraph essay is the foundation, not the culmination, of high school writing. The form should be mastered by the freshman year of high school and used as the basis that supports students to write frequently in multiple and more sophisticated formats.

  • The ability to read independently in a range of disciplines is paramount to academic and career success. Learning how to interpret literature and informative, highly technical and often lengthy reading passages should be an overarching goal of ELA PASS.

  • The purposes should include the habits of mind that help any person be successful: persistence, responsibility, self-analysis and reflection, and independence.

Side note: Is it any wonder that the comments on the ELA standards are wordier? Just a harmless observation.

In all seriousness, these are some strong recommendations. The ELA standards have always lacked for clarity in terms of the depth of skills learned by grade level. I especially like the example of reinforcing the fact that informational and non-fiction text have purposes beyond research. Then, as the math committee points out, we really have to push students to take more courses that will help with college preparation.

My own research

As you would expect, I’m not content thinking that the standards are the only contributor to college readiness. While student course selection is important to college preparedness, there is more to the story than that. Using data from the graduating class of 2013 at Oklahoma’s 453 high schools, I explored the relationships among several variables. Keeping in mind that correlation does not always indicate causation, consider the following correlations:

Variables Correlated to School Free/Reduced Lunch Percentage
Seniors in Career Tech Programs 0.17
Average ACT Score of Graduates -0.60
Oklahoma College-going Rate -0.30
College Remediation Rate 0.57

Once again, we see that poverty matters. Schools with more of it have strong correlations to low ACT (-0.60) scores and high college remediation rates (0.57). We should also, however, consider the impact of expectations. At home, students with resources and support are pushed more towards college. That explains the lower college-going rate among schools with high levels of poverty (-0.30). Interestingly, we also see that schools with more poverty have slightly more students involved in Career Tech programs (0.17). Knowing that many of the high-poverty schools in Oklahoma are also small, rural schools, I decided to look at the impact of school size on these same variables.

Variables Correlated to Total High School Enrollment
Seniors in Career Tech Programs -0.23
Average ACT Score of Graduates 0.35
Oklahoma College-going Rate 0.26
College Remediation Rate -0.20

The first thing I should note is that these correlations should not lead anyone to think (or believe that I think) that large schools are better than small schools. I do think that most of the larger high schools are in the suburbs or near colleges, which impacts expectations, however. I also know from experience that larger high schools can offer a wider variety of classes. This may impact the amount of math and science content students have available. It’s not a knock on smaller schools. It’s just an observation. I would also guess that smaller schools don’t have as much access to content specialists and other professional development opportunities to help them with turning standards into curriculum. Now that we’ve changed tracks twice in four years, and we’re planning to do so again before 2016, maybe we should cut the teachers and students a little slack.

That said, the biggest variable of all related to college remediation rates seems to be poverty. If I had been running multiple regression tests, we would probably see that students in small schools with low poverty fare about as well as students in large schools with low poverty. If we had a way to capture 12 year numbers on mobility rates, that would probably factor in too.

My conclusion, based on the work of the State Regents, the SREB, and my own rudimentary calculations, would be that our standards, when controlling for poverty, aren’t the thing that determines college readiness. It still has a lot more to do with family characteristics and overall expectations than anything else. Adopting Common Core won’t change this. Adding or eliminating tests won’t change this. Parents and teachers having high expectations for all students is important, but so is coming to school having your basic human survival needs met.

Superintendent Barresi, there is no reason for confusion. The only unsettling thing is that after four years in your position, you still don’t understand the hard work that Oklahoma educators do every day. You don’t understand that schools have differences – large and small; affluent and poor; rural, suburban, and urban – and that these differences matter.

As my friend Rob Miller said last week, just mail the damn letter to the feds and be done with it. Then get out of the way! Soon enough, this will be someone else’s concern – someone who gets it.

  1. Kirby Lehman
    October 20, 2014 at 12:37 am

    Thank you for your continuing efforts in getting to the reading public worthwhile analyses for all of us to consider as we develop (or solidify) our opinions about the “direction” of Oklahoma (and American) public education. As you might guess, I have some very strong beliefs, based on my 45 years of observations in the public schools of our nation.

    Common Core State Standards and other standards developed across the nation purport to “develop” our children for college and career readiness. However, who is creating and developing the jobs they will be seeking after they have completed college or are “career ready”? For, a high percentage of the jobs available in 2014 did not even exist when today’s college graduates first entered high school and were “challenged” by PASS standards.

    As Yong Zhao so aptly stated (with my addition), “Stop the Common Core (AND other state-developed standards) OR ready your basement for your college graduates.” Public education must focus on problem identification, job creation, innovation, problem solving, and entrepreneurism—not standards developed by a small group who have defined the skills and knowledge which our youth should acquire and/or possess . . . or our fabulous democratic republic will (rapidly) dissolve and permeate into a government in which some (perhaps many) of us really do not want to reside.

    Just some thoughts.

    Thanks again for your time and expertise in communicating factual information, interspersed with a few opinions, to Oklahoma’s reading public.

    Kirby Lehman



  2. Funny
    October 20, 2014 at 8:28 am

    The ironic thing here is that Keri White, the Assistant State Superintendent who wrote the Waiver request, recently left SDE so there’s no one there who can rework the Waiver request and send it back to USDE.


  3. Debra
    October 20, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Project SOAR -Southeastern Oklahoma Arts Reform in 2004 (or 05?) was about PASS skill development in the arts. This was a process involving arts educators and some administrators and others defining, re-defining, aligning to “core subjects” and strengthening the problem-solving/creative process-to-production aspects of art instruction within the realities of an arts-education-hostile environment: little funding and diminishing respect for the arts and art teachers shown by policy decisions and by some colleagues; but a great deal of intuitive knowledge and research supporting that other core subjects are supported and performance outcomes greater in schools with an arts-enriched curriculum. Perhaps the experience of these art educators in the trenches – collaborating with “higher” forces – that is, those who have fought the battle to “legitimize” our classroom subjects and to showcase critical thinking/creative problem solving teaching expertise – usually on shoe-string art budgets – – can be useful to those who are trying to bring Oklahoma’s standards to competitive levels within the current hostile to national standards environment?


  1. December 28, 2014 at 10:18 pm
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