Seven years ago, Oklahoma advanced a major reform to improve accountability and results in our schools. The Achieving Classroom Excellence Act, a bipartisan reform passed in 2005, was considered a landmark achievement for Democratic Gov. Brad Henry, and it established requirements for high school graduating seniors in 2012.
The basic goal of ACE is to raise expectations for students, knowing that students will rise to the challenge. In the simplest terms, it requires that beginning in the ninth grade, students must take tests to demonstrate mastery in subjects like English, Algebra, Geometry, Biology and U.S. History in order to get a high school diploma.
A high school diploma in Oklahoma must have meaningful and objective value that demonstrates students are ready for real life in the 21st century. It should serve as something of a passport to a successful life as an adult. The ultimate goal is that when students graduate from our high schools, we know they are truly prepared for an increasingly challenging world.
ACE faced opposition even before the ink on Gov. Henry’s signature on the law was dry. Opponents have said the law is too hard on students, that the tests aren’t fair and that students who attend classes and make passing grades should still get a diploma.
Yet, in 2007, just two years after passage of ACE, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Oklahoma an “F” for truth in advertising when it came to educational accountability. The national business community was sending Oklahoma a clear message: We’ll take you seriously when you take yourselves seriously.
ACE offers provisions for students who aren’t natural test takers. Other provisions exist for those with special needs. Many alternative methods also assess mastery of subject matter. The ACT test for college-bound seniors counts in place of an EOI. A portfolio of work may be submitted. Students can complete a project. The list of options is lengthy.
Oklahoma also has an ACE appeals process in place for students with extenuating circumstances. To date, the State Board of Education has heard only one formal appeal. It was granted. An additional appeal will be heard later this month. One appeal was withdrawn because the student passed an alternate test. Even so, we are working on drafting emergency rules to meet the requirement of House Bill 2970, recently signed into law by Gov. Fallin. The bill asks for an appeals process for those not granted a high school diploma because of a failed EOI.
Some have challenged ACE because it’s difficult to think that a student might not graduate. Certainly it is, and my heart goes out to each student in this predicament. However, without ACE, one could make the argument that we would be simply passing the buck. We would be doing a disservice to students by making them think they were ready for work or college, when they were not. Thanks to the positive reforms offered by ACE, parents and schools alike are paying close attention to those students who need extra help. Schools that, for example, may have had more than a dozen seniors not ready to graduate now have two or three students on that list.
I count that as a significant improvement, and proof that the goals of ACE are working.
Just as ACE tests a student’s mastery of what they’ve learned in high school, Oklahoma’s ability to implement this reform is a test of our mettle as a state. Will we pass this test? I’m optimistic we will. We’ll let the world know that Oklahoma takes academic success seriously, and we’ll prepare students for a future when they’ll be competing on a global stage.
JANET BARRESI is state superintendent of public instruction for Oklahoma.