Oregon schools recorded their poorest performance in the five-year history of Oregon’s current reading, writing and math tests this spring, registering year-over-year declines in every grade level and among nearly every demographic group, scores released Thursday show.
The scores indicate only 40% of students across grades three through eight have mastered math and just over half can read and write proficiently.
So many high school students sat out the nationally benchmarked tests, known as Smarter Balanced exams, that their results, which were down sharply in reading and writing, are not reliable. Nearly 20% of juniors declined to take the English or math exam or both, state figures show.
The performance decline and the continued wide disparities between white and Asian students and historically poorer performing students of color were a disappointment, given the frequent calls by state schools chief Colt Gill and other leaders in Oregon’s education establishment to raise the bar and close achievement gaps.
The state has multimillion-dollar initiatives underway to raise achievement among black and Native American students. But Asian American students, already by far the top scorers in Oregon, were the only racial or ethnic group that registered consistent improvement on the tests this year.
The tests are designed to measure whether students have the skills they need to be on track for college and careers. They were vetted by college professors, teachers, curriculum experts and employers, who said they focus on the skills that U.S. students need to be successful in higher education and the workplace.
Performance among middle-schoolers was particularly dismal this year, with white students and low-income students showing notably large declines.
Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest district, epitomized the poor English and math performance among low-income sixth- and seventh-graders. The district, where four of every 10 middle schoolers are low-income, saw painful declines in reading and writing skills among that group, with barely 30% scoring as proficient.
Three years ago, Portland district leaders acknowledged the reading and writing curriculum they’d used to teach those students, who by then were entering fourth- and fifth-grade, had been an inferior choice, particularly given the lack of training and support they gave teachers on how to best use those textbooks. As a result, some teachers barely used the books, while others felt ill-equipped to use their full spectrum of features, the district’s then chief academic officer Chris Russo said in 2016.
Statewide, students in grades three and four, whose education since kindergarten had been at least nominally geared to the higher cognitive demands of the Smarter Balanced tests, showed the smallest year-over-year decline in test scores.
Gill and others said they are optimistic that a massive infusion of new funding for public schools and early childhood education starting in fall 2020 will pay off in measurable ways. The money will help provide, among other things, smaller classes, additional mental health and behavioral supports and improved attention to students of color.
But he also cautioned against reading too much into the test results, noting that an in-depth end-of-year test over reading, writing and math doesn’t capture the breadth of subjects that students should learn in a well-rounded curriculum. It also does not measure social and emotional well-being, teamwork, interpersonal skills and other important elements of young people’s preparedness.
“We must be careful to ensure this incomplete data does not skew our thinking or our actions,” Gill said in a statement issued by his office.
There were a few bright spots. Among large and medium-sized districts, McMinnville once again led the pack in getting low-income students to master math. Across all grades, 46% of its students scored proficient in math, compared to less than half that in Portland, Reynolds, Forest Grove and Gladstone.
In reading and writing, McMinnville was also near the top among medium and large districts for its success with low-income students, along with Grants Pass, La Grande and Oregon Trail. All four succeeded in getting more than half their low-income students to score proficient on the English exam.
Getting students to read well by the end of third grade is a widely acknowledged benchmark that schools should shoot for, and it’s one Oregon policymakers over the years have signed onto.
But only five Oregon schools got at least 90% of their third-graders to perform proficiently on the Smarter Balanced reading test. Two are Beaverton schools that serve neighborhoods heavily populated by families from Chinese or Indian backgrounds with parents who work at Intel or other high-tech employers: Findley and Jacob Wismer elementaries. Another is Evergreen Elementary in Silverton. And two are small rural schools, Helix School in the town of the same name and Haines Elementary in Baker City. None of the five had more than a handful of low-income third-graders last year.
State and school district officials tried to make the case that taking the tests is good for students and also helps their schools, by showing where faculty members are succeeding and where they most need to improve. Nevertheless, nearly 20,000 students got their parents’ permission to sit out the standardized math exam last spring and more than 17,000 skipped the reading and writing tests.
Still, that represented a slight increase in the participation rates from their nadir in 2018. Both rose 1 percentage point from the 93 percent of students who took the math exam in 2018 and the 94 percent who took the reading and writing test that year.
Test participation rates were particularly low in the two school districts that host large statewide online charter schools – Santiam Canyon and North Bend. At Santiam Canyon’s Oregon Connections Academy and at North Bend’s Oregon Virtual Academy, more than a quarter of students declined to take the tests, which the state uses as a primary means to judge school performance.
Other districts with high test refusal rates included Redmond, where 21% of students had their parents opt them out of both English and math testing; Estacada, where 18% sat out; Canby, where 15% of students skipped the math test; and Bend-La Pine, where 17% dodged math testing.
Among neighborhood schools, Portland’s Wilson High stood out for the puny share of students who sat for testing: Just 28% took the reading and writing test and just 21% took math.
Luis Valentino, Portland’s chief academic officer, acknowledged today’s middle schoolers in his district did not have a uniformly strong reading lessons when they were younger. He says he and other relatively new leaders at the district have strategic fixes planned, including extensive retraining for kindergarten through second-grade literacy teachers and the opening of new preschool slots in neighborhoods with high needs. But, he said, most of those steps won’t happen at scale until next school year.
In the meantime, he said, parents in Portland and other districts whose children show low reading or math proficiency want to know: “What now?”
Valentino said Portland plans to equip middle school teachers with more intervention strategies and tools for individualizing instruction, both in reading and in math. He said the district also acknowledges its math curriculum needs work and plans to adopt new math series next school year.
Gill, the state schools chief, also has his eyes on next school year, when districts will be given half a billion dollars to spend – largely as each district sees fit – to try to raise achievement, improve student mental and behavioral health and close achievement gaps. He called this year’s low test scores an important but incomplete basis on which to base those spending decisions.
Gill encouraged parents and taxpayers to reach out to their school district’s leaders now to offer input on how they think the district could best spend the new money. Most districts are actively weighing those choices now before they apply for the money in 2020, Gill said, and they need to take community preferences into account.
“These data points need to inform that discussion,” he said. “Our students and our families need to be engaged with this data and what it tells them.”