Oklahoma’s middle-class children are falling behind

National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2011

It’s no secret that Oklahoma lags behind other states in student achievement. In 2011, Oklahoma fourth graders’ reading scores ranked 40th among all states (plus Washington DC and Department of Defense schools). Among eighth graders, Oklahomans’ reading scores put us at 41st. Math scores were only slightly better, at 38th in the nation for both fourth and eighth graders.

It’s not entirely fair to compare states in this way, since they can be dealing with very different student populations. Oklahoma is a high-poverty state, and a large number of our children face difficult challenges that come with poverty: a less stable home environment, parents who may not have the time or ability to read to their kids, fewer successful role models, inadequate nutrition, and more. Variation in child poverty rates can explain more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading and math scores across states.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) does give us a way to remove this effect and see how similar groups of children are faring across states. Scores on this national test can be sorted into children eligible for the free- or reduced-lunch program and those who are not eligible. This program is available only to families with incomes at or below 185% of the poverty line.

When we separate these two groups of children, the results are surprising. Oklahoma is actually performing at or better than the national average for free/reduced lunch eligible children. Our 2011 rankings on 4th and 8th Grade Math and Reading tests ranged from 20th to 25th.

Those students not eligible for free- or reduced-lunches do perform significantly better on these tests than low-income children. However, their ranking plummets compared to similar kids in other states. On fourth grade math and reading scores, they ranked 45th in the nation. By the eighth grade, math performance rose to 41st, while reading dropped to 46th.

This divide has existed for at least the last decade. To use fourth grade reading scores as an example, free/reduced lunch eligible Oklahomans have consistently performed slightly better than the national average for similar students, while those not eligible have performed below the national average.

Because poverty is so high in Oklahoma and has such a large effect on school performance, reducing poverty remains the best thing we can do to improve our overall test scores. However, Oklahoma seems to be doing as well as the nation as a whole in teaching these kids.

It’s the middle class children who are not getting all that they should from Oklahoma schools. If we continue to increase class sizes and eliminate advanced electives that help good students to excel, that’s unlikely to change.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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