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Oregon’s lagging test scores

September 28, 2018

Two recent developments encapsulate the lethargic state of leadership in Oregon education these days.

The Oregon Department of Education released the results of standardized exams taken by public school students last year. The overall takeaways: Math scores are declining, language arts scores are stagnant and some of the state’s data is unreliable due to many students skipping the test. Yet there was little urgency in superintendent Colt Gill’s public remarks about the need to improve Oregon’s bleak situation.

Then, just hours later, the Oregon Board of Education voted to loosen requirements on how much school time districts must provide students in their senior year. Instead of pushing for full schedules that will best prepare students for college or career, the board authorized a swath of exemptions that let districts offer seniors who are “on track” to graduate fewer classes, provided their local school boards agree. The decision marks a reversal from the strong stand the board took just three years ago after parents protested the “part-time” education that Portland Public Schools provided high-school students.

It’s almost as if state education leaders are content with the lack of progress for Oregon’s students. And, apparently, they think it’s fine for thousands of students to skip tests designed to show whether the education system is improving. It appears they also believe that “on track” for earning enough high school credits to graduate means a student is fully equipped for college. That conclusion is at odds with the reality that many Oregon graduates have to take remedial courses before enrolling in college-credit classes. In fact, more than one-quarter of the 2017 Portland Public Schools high-school graduates who enrolled in Portland Community College in fall 2017 had to take a “pre-college” math class, according to PCC.

Both of these developments should motivate Oregonians to step up their pressure on state and local leaders to treat Oregon’s persistent education failures with the urgency they require. Continuing down the path of least resistance only guarantees that Oregon’s students will continue to be underprepared. And while Oregonians can and should support increased education funding, they should insist on an ambitious strategy that smartly spends money in ways that make a difference.

Unfortunately, when faced with the opportunity to rally Oregonians with a clear vision of what the state plans to achieve, however, Gill and the state education board punted.

Gill did not respond to requests from the Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board to discuss the test results or instructional time rollback. But he did comment on the test results in a press release: “Annual tests give us a snapshot of student learning, but there is more we should be doing to give teachers the tools to target complex thinking in students... Shorter, more focused testing throughout the year can give teachers insights into activities that can help students think and work out problems. That is how we get better results.”

If “that” is the strategy Gill is offering to improve students’ outcomes, then Oregonians should steel themselves for more of the same: third-worst graduation rate in the country; a widening achievement gap that leaves low-income and minority populations behind; persistently mediocre test scores; and an epidemic of students graduating from high school without mastery of basic material needed for entry-level college courses.

Instead, Gill could have explained how the state will take lessons learned from low-income and diverse districts like McMinnville, whose students are handily outperforming the state average in math, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Betsy Hammond reported. Or he could have talked about how the state will improve student participation in test-taking, by showing families that these tests are critical to assessing the system’s progress as a whole and determining whether key efforts to support minority and low-income students are working. He could have said any number of things to assure Oregonians that he and Gov. Kate Brown recognize the state is unacceptably failing its students.

A lackluster response, however, seems to be the norm. The state board of education, whose voting members are appointed by the governor, similarly failed to champion students’ needs when it voted Thursday to change its instructional time policy. Instead, at the behest of the Oregon School Boards Association and the Confederation of School Administrators, the state board authorized four exemptions to the current policy that requires school districts to ensure that at least 80 percent of students in a school receive 966 hours of instruction in a year. School districts need only get permission from their local school boards to enact the exemptions, which allow for scheduling fewer classes for students who are “on track” to earn enough credits to graduate. But a student can be on track while failing to show proficiency in a subject, like math. Shouldn’t they be scheduled to repeat such coursework in high school rather than be forced to pay for remedial classes at college?

It’s difficult to see how the instructional-time decision squares with Brown’s newly-professed interest in extending the school year to 180 days. This doesn’t give anyone a longer school day. And while the education department sought to celebrate the “flexibility” that this new policy will give students, it’s the district administrators who will benefit. Districts can continue to collect Oregon taxpayer dollars meant for educating thousands of seniors full-time, while offering them a part-time schedule. Those dollars can then be used to backfill any number of other expenses, administrative, programmatic or otherwise.

Thankfully, the state education board explicitly said that seniors who proactively demand a full schedule should be allowed to have one. A small victory — and one that will likely benefit only students with the most-engaged parents.

Oregonians should insist their local school boards reject exemptions that cheat students out of their education. With education “leaders” standing on the sidelines, parents, students and community members will need to light the way.

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