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High school workshops limit opportunities

Might there be a better way to serve those students who truly need remedial instruction?

In the last several years, most Forest Grove High School freshman have had no choice but to take remedial math and reading workshops in place of electives.

Many of these students had passed Oregon's eighth grade OAKS test, which is used to measure proficiency in math and reading for incoming freshmen.

But they did not meet the school district's requirement for higher scores and had to take remedial workshops as an 'elective.' Some students must take workshops in both reading and math, thereby having access to only one elective, rather than three.

Recently, the Oregon Department of Education released a draft document titled, 'A Best Practices Guide for Districts Regarding When to Administer the OAKS.

Its authors say that, according to best practice, students younger than 11th grade should not be expected to take or pass the high school OAKS test.

Yet, according to our high school's current workshop practice, freshmen and sophomores must pass the 11th grade OAKS test in order to exit either workshop.

Writers of this document also argue that schools should not use OAKS scores alone to place individual students in certain classes. Districts should use many measures - classroom grades, teacher input, parent input, current classes, academic history, etc. - to determine each student's educational needs.

Nevertheless, our district uses only one measure to determine who must take a high school workshop 'elective' - their score on the 8th grade OAKS test.

Most students find deep motivation for school through elective classes, which can range from childcare and horticulture to art and web design.

However, students in workshops are limited in what they can 'elect' to take. In fact, some of our students stay in workshops multiple semesters, trying to pass the 11th-grade-level OAKS test. These students continue missing out on one or two electives each semester.

This begs some questions: Are the workshops mainly effective with, but ultimately unnecessary for, those students who would have passed the OAKS as 11th graders anyway?

Do certain subgroups of students end up disproportionately staying in these workshops semester after semester? Might there be a better way to serve those students who truly need remedial instruction, but who are currently required to be in workshop up to two or three years?

As a public school teacher who works with struggling students in another district, I believe passionately that our high school must help students who are struggling in reading and math. But I know that many high schools provide students with academic supports without denying them access to some or all electives. Shouldn't our district look to these other districts for better, less punitive and less expensive models?

On students' transcripts, Forest Grove High School names these 'elective' courses as 'math' or 'reading workshop.'

These students, therefore, cannot display on their transcript their passion for art, music and other electives for college admissions officers to see. This is an injustice.

Moreover, our district, by funding workshops and thereby eliminating other electives and programs, denies all students in our community a richer education.

As fewer high school students are able to enroll in electives because they are mandated to be in workshops, the high school has less students overall for elective classes.

Thus, it is seemingly, but erroneously, logical to cut these electives. Students at all grade levels have lost programs, and high school students have lost agriculture, auto, technology, and other programs.

Finally, our workshop students look less well-rounded compared to students around the state.

Those who passed the 8th grade OAKS but did not meet our district's higher cutoff score lose an elective that students at other Oregon high schools do not lose. (Ours is the only Oregon high school, based on my research, requiring scores higher than the state score before placing students in remedial workshops). This may affect their college choices, as colleges compare their transcripts to those of students at other Oregon high schools.

Our district chooses to use our money for some programs and not for others. It determines for us how our children 'elect' classes at the high school. No doubt, many cuts had to be made. Many of us question the wisdom, however, of what was cut and what remains.

We as a community need to ask tough questions of our school district and school board.

I urge everyone in this community to read the draft document on best practice in testing and let the Oregon Department of Education know that you support this document in its current form.

We owe it to our children.

- Monica Gorman lives in Cornelius. She is a member of the Forest Grove School Citizens Advisory Group.

Learn more:

You can contact the Oregon Department of Education through its website, www.ode.state.or.us. You can also read a copy of the June 6 draft report on OAKS testing from the site by typing 'OAKS best practices guide' into the search bar on the home page.