OKLAHOMA CITY — High school juniors and seniors from around the state journeyed to the capitol Thursday, bringing with them different perspectives on current problems in education.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister welcomed the 67 students who were selected from applicants she had asked high school administrators to nominate for their leadership abilities. Those included Ardmore High School’s Hannah Oliver and Fox High School’s Morgan Phelps.
Participants were asked what issues they saw in their schools, and the top two these highlighted were bullying and state End Of Instruction exams.
At Thursday’s forum, the students were divided into groups of 10 or so to discuss the two issues further and to come up with possible solutions.
“Our goal for today is to learn from the students,” Hofmeister said. “We are working now to better serve. I think that they have very meaningful input and ideas, and it’s the right place to bring the conversation before the legislative session and before we roll out new standards and before they finish their junior and senior year. Their voice matters.”
The students worked among themselves for 20 or so minutes, then presented their ideas.
“Physical bullying I really haven’t seen in my school like a lot of students here,” Mannford High School’s Beecher Owens said. “We haven’t seen someone being pushed up against lockers or anything like that, but we see most of the bullying on social media and gossiping and things like that. What we can do for that is have administrators on social media and basically have punishments for the things that happen on social media.”
At the other end of the spectrum, a second group suggested encouraging and rewarding positive activity on social media.
“We decided to make it an opportunity for awareness,” Weatherford High School’s Terin Brown said, “and also a place where someone could go and talk to someone who has been being bullied and just bringing awareness in school that there are people you can talk to. We talked about setting an example at our own schools to not bully, to not act that way to other students. We also wanted to teach how to prevent and how to respond to bullying earlier in age like elementary school age.”
“Bullying is students misunderstanding other students,” Putnam City High School’s Alexander Brown said. “We talked about how we have programs at my school where we come together like this as seniors and juniors as group leaders and talk to sophomores and freshmen about what they’ve experienced in their lives and how to understand each other. If we understand each other, we won’t hit a nerve that hurts someone.”
End Of Instruction exams struck a nerve.
“We don’t like that EOI scores reflect badly on teachers,” Owens said. “That’s been a big thing. We have third- and fourth-grade students having to take these exams that dictate whether they go onto the next grade. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have testing, but we should have something that’s not as stressful. Third-grade students don’t need to be going through that amount of stress to know that that one test on that one day will dictate if they go to the next grade.”
Christian Coleman, from Millwood High School, suggested breaking the test into smaller increments.
“We thought that maybe two, three or four benchmark tests throughout the year would help because some students are actually very smart but they have test anxiety,” Coleman said. “One big test at the end of the year is very stressful.”
Moreover, Pawhuska student Bradon Berry said, “We should shift the focus to learning instead of testing. We’ve got to let the teachers have more freedom in what they’re doing.
“Use the ACT to measure learning instead of the EOI. Create an ACT and GPA correlation for graduation requirements.”
One group suggested increasing exemptions.
“Sometimes you really have to veer away from what your teacher is wanting to teach because you have to fit into this test. It would be good to communicate more clearly and thoroughly about the exemption opportunities we have with the PSAT and other tests,” Brown said. “That could get students who don’t necessarily need to take the EOI out of there and save some time and they could spend their time helping those who do.”
Ponca City High School’s Ellen Roth said she hates “how scores affect teachers because some students don’t try. The ones with good scores are opting out. It’s lowering the average when they have all these great students. Scores aren’t being fairly presented.”
Roth also added her group’s idea of EOI boot camps.
“One day a year, all juniors go to English all day instead of hitting it hard every day for weeks,” Roth said. “It’s set up in a game format.”
To reduce the stress on teachers, students came up with the idea of teacher evaluations based on the entire curriculum rather than evaluating teachers by one test.
 “Instead of having EOIs, we let the teachers have a little bit more freedom and they push education for the ACT,” Baron said. “If students took a pre-test at the beginning of the year and a post-test at the end of the year it would be to see how the teachers teach through the year instead of just one test at the end.”
Students also briefly touched on other issues, such as student-to-teacher ratios and wanting better pay for teachers.
 “We thought that the learning ratio was too high,” Coleman said. “Teachers are overwhelmed because they have too many students in a class. Students were feeling that they weren’t getting the attention that they need to learn and excel.”
Lastly, students were able to hear from Oklahoma Teacher of the Year Shawn Sheehan, who is also a finalist for National Teacher of the Year.
A student asked how Sheehan handled students who didn’t want to learn and who get frustrated. Sheehan offered an anecdote in which one student was face to face with him and he was afraid he was going to get hit. Instead of punishing the student, he verbally reprimanded them and went back to teaching. He emphasized the importance of having a short memory with students and that the student “was immediately forgiven.”
Hofmeister, in remarks at the end of the session, said her only regret was not having more time, so she is bringing the 67 back in April to speak directly with the Legislature.
“We touched lots of things that are very insightful,” Hofmeister said. “This is very interesting and helpful for us. We look forward to having a chance to expand on some of your thoughts in the future.”