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Local students lag state on academic tests

Fewer than half of students test at grade level in math -

OUTLOOK GRAPHIC: JOSH BRADLEY - Information provided by the Oregon Department of Education.In East Multnomah County’s big school districts, fewer than half the students are working at grade level in math but are are doing a bit better in reading, revealed test scores just released by the Oregon Department of Education reveal.

In math in the 2015-16 school year, 42 percent of students statewide tested at a level that puts them on track to graduate from high school, only a one-point improvement from the year earlier. In East Multnomah County, Corbett School District students were the only ones that bested the state math scores, with 44.5 percent of students on track to graduate, and that was a small decline from the year earlier.

At Gresham-Barlow, a bit more than one-third, 34.1 percent, were doing math at grade level. In the Centennial School District it was 33.7 percent and fewer than one in four students, only 22.1 percent, of students in the Reynolds School District tested at or above the benchmark for math in the 2015-16 school year.

In reading and language arts the picture is a bit brighter, with more than half, 55 percent, of students working at grade level statewide. Once again, only tiny Corbett did better than the state average with 56.1 percent of students mastering language arts at a level that is on track for graduation.

In Gresham-Barlow, 51.8 percent of students were proficient in reading and writing, 47.6 of Centennial students and 34.7 of Reynolds students were working at or above the benchmark for their grade.

“I don’t think any educator will ever be satisfied with student achievement. There is always room for growth,” Angela Hubbs, Centennial’s director of curriculum and student learning said of the test results.

FILE PHOTO - The new Smarter Balanced tests are scored from Level 1 to Level 4. Only one measure

The Oregon Department of Education cautions that these test scores are only one measure of student achievement and success. And this is only the second year that students took the new Smarter Balanced tests based on the Common Core state standards. The tests are taken online, which also is different for many students who are used to “bubbling in” answers on paper forms.

All the districts are working diligently at improving student achievement as reflected in the test scores.

“As we strive to make sure that every student is prepared for success we will continue a concentrated focus on our seventh and eighth grade students, who continue to need additional support in both content areas (English/language arts and math), as well as eleventh grade students in math, as evidenced by our data,” said Sara Huston, Gresahm-Barlow’s executive director of school performance.

At some districts, this means buying new books and learning materials because the old materials don’t jibe well with the new Common Core state standards that are being tested in these standardized assessments.

At Gresham-Barlow for example, they got new middle school math curriculum for this school year. Teachers have been getting training on using the new middle school math resources to the best advantage.

Centennial took a similar but, out-of-the-box approach, to getting new math materials. Centennial downloaded their math “books” free from the internet for the whole district for this school year. Although there are costs associated with printing and teacher training, these “free” materials have been very successful in two Centennial schools that tried them out last year, said Hubbs.

Centennial is also taking a different approach with its students that are just learning English, a group that often struggles with standardized tests. Centennial also continues to focus on teachers meeting together in groups to analyze how students are doing in topics being taught and brainstorm ways to teach various concepts better and work with students who might be lagging.

“I think Centennial is a district that is always looking to improve in our areas of strength as well as our challenges,” Hubbs said.

The new Smarter Balanced tests are scored from Level 1 to Level 4. If a student scores a 3 or 4 they are considered to be at grade level or better and on track to graduate from high school and be ready for college or a career.

If a student scores a Level 1 or 2, the Oregon Department of Education said they will receive extra help to become proficient and on track to be college or career ready.

Science scores

The state also released test scores in science. Science is not part of the new Smarter Balanced exams, but the old OAKS (Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) benchmarks.

In science, 63 percent of students state-wide were proficient in science skills. In Corbett that was 66.3 percent of students, 57.8 percent in Gresham-Barlow, 53.7 percent in Centennial and 49.2 in Reynolds.

These standardized tests were given to more than 290,000 students all across the state.

The Common Core state standards are a more rigorous set of guidelines detailing what students should know at each level of their education. They were unveiled in 2010 and initially adopted by 42 states. The related Smarter Balanced tests are given in 17 states, including Washington.

The Smarter Balanced tests are not the old multiple-choice, “bubble in” standardized tests. Smarter Balanced requires students to write out many answers in essay form and show and explain their work in math, although there are some multiple choice answers.

“Students are asked to write, reason, think critically and solve multi-step problems that better reflect classroom learning and the real world. For the first time, our standards — and our tests — are aligned with the expectations of colleges and employers,” ODE said.

Common Core and the related Smarter Balanced testing has been controversial. Several states have dropped the Common Core standards and a growing number of families have opted out of the tests nationwide, including in Oregon.

Statewide about 96 percent of students participated in the language arts testing, 95 percent took the math tests and 89 percent took the science test.

Some people object to what they perceive as increased federal control of education, although Common Core and Smarter Balanced tests were crafted by a consortium of states, not the federal government. Others feel there is an over emphasis on testing and some think the tests are just too long.