VALE – Malheur County educators are mulling strategies to boost reading, writing and math scores as statewide test results – the first in three years – revealed steep learning declines after two years of pandemic-related disruptions.
The test, administered in May, is a yearly assessment conducted by the state to measure how well districts are preparing students to read, write and do math.
Test scores for Malheur County schools revealed significant declines below the state standard. Meanwhile, as education officials devise strategies based on the first comprehensive assessments since 2019, some county officials are concerned chronic absences could hinder efforts to close the gaps.
What the tests measure
Mark Redmond, Malheur County Education Service District superintendent, said the English and math assessments are given to students in grades 3 to 8 and 11, while the science assessments are taken by those in grades 5, 8 and 11.
Redmond said students who score a Level 3, 4 or 5 on a test have met or exceeded the state standards in each subject and are deemed on track to graduate.
A Level 2, he said, shows some proficiency in meeting the state’s minimum grade-level ability to reach the grade-level standard. Those who scored a Level 1, Redmond said, did not meet the state standard in a topic or missed the threshold of showing some proficiency.
Redmond said the Smarter Balance test is used to evaluate students at the end of the school year, which is beneficial in looking at the big picture. However, he said, the school districts use “formative” assessments, which allow them to measure how students are doing in real time and adjust accordingly.
Redmond said he is concerned about the overall attendance rates at the county’s school districts. Redmond said while the county’s attendance rates are well above Oregon’s 65% average, he said attendance is a metric he believes the county needs to address for schools to catch up in other areas.
However, he said, post-pandemic, some students have yet to return to school for in-person classes. Attendance rates across each district have been dropping since 2017. For example, in Nyssa’s 9-12 grades was 80.8% and dipped to 76.3% a year later in 2017, 72% in 2018-19 and fell to 68% in 2022.
Meanwhile, in 2016-17 Vale’s high school students had a regular attendance rate of 81.6% in 2017-18, 71% dipping to 68.6% in 2018-19 and plummeting to 50% in 2021-22.
With steep declines and a skills deficit among a wide swath of the students, Redmond said attendance is crucial in closing the gaps.
That is worrying educators, Redmond said.
“If the student’s attendance is down,” he said, “then how can we catch them up if they’re not in school?”
He said the reasons for absence are not clear, but post-covid, it appears that many students have opted not to return to school regularly.
“We have a lot of kids that are still at home,” Redmond said, “and we know that they do not learn that well (at home).”
He said these are not students enrolled in online or hybrid classes but instead are registered to attend in-person classes.
Without a statewide enrollment mechanism, the county’s superintendents are working on drafting a countywide ordinance that could result in consequences to parents of a student who falls below a 90% attendance rate. Redmond said the details are being developed regarding how the ordinance would be enforced.
He said it would be positive. He said they are looking at training for parents through Lifeways. A penalty for a student, he said, would be suspension from the driver education program. Redmond said there are similar ordinances in Josephine and Lake counties.
The state assessment shows that 91% of freshmen in Ontario, the county’s largest district with 2,263 students, are on track to graduate.
The metric is one of the most significant, Redmond said, as it tracks those freshmen that did not fail any classes in their first year of high school.
An abundance of research shows when a first-year high school student flunks a class, their chances of getting a diploma reduce dramatically.
Ontario’s K-5 math scores were 25% in 2022, down from 26% in 2019 and 28.9% in 2018.
In grades 6-8, reading and writing, the percentage of students had been steadily improving – 46% in 2017, 51% in 2018, but dropped to 42% in 2019. In 2022, the rate plunged to 21%.
The district is taking steps to close the learning gaps at Ontario schools, according to Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations coordinator. For instance, the district is implementing a reading program for 3-6 graders. She said teachers attended a workshop last month.
Smith said the district has tools to help students and there are measures in place that are working. Smith said local data bears that out and shows the district making up ground.
The district is taking action from more class time for students who need extra help to an automated monitoring system that flags a student at risk of falling behind.
That said, there are challenges.
“Many of our students living in poverty face academic challenges similar to those during the pandemic for many more students,” Smith said.
The second largest school in the county with 1,198 students, the district is below the state in most areas, including 6-8 grade math, K-5, 6-8 and junior math scores.
Superintendent Darren Johnson declined to comment on the specifics of the state test scores but said the Nyssa School Board would consider the topic at its meeting scheduled for Monday, Nov.14. at 7 p.m. He encouraged people to attend the meeting as he is concerned.
According to Superintendent Alisha McBride, regular attendance is a chief concern in Vale.
Students in K-2 dropped from 82% in 2019 to 66% in 2022. McBride noted attendance followed the statewide trend. While the decrease is attributed to pandemic protocols from the 2020-21 school year, the focus should be regularly getting kids back into the classroom.
Harper Charter School District
One of the county’s smallest school districts with 242 students enrolled in 2021-22, Superintendent Ron Talbot said the school’s pre-pandemic math scores were below the state average.
Talbot said the school had begun addressing the poor math scores before the pandemic. He said the school doubled the time for students struggling in math at the start of the 2019-20 school year.
In the spring of 2020, Talbot said Harper Charter avoided closing by shifting to cohort groups and a staggered, shortened schedule. He said the two cohort groups came in for two-hour sessions. Talbot said maintaining in-person sessions throughout the worst of the pandemic rather than completely going to remote learning allowed students to have some face-to-face contact with teachers and peers. He said educators have come to realize such contact is crucial to learning and development.
Talbot said Harper Charter did not come out of the pandemic unscathed. He pointed out reading and math levels are still down.
Harper Charter math scores for 6-8 grade students fell from 35% in 2019 to 21% this spring. In addition to increasing lessons in reading and math, the school added a part-time academic counselor partially funded by the state’s High School Success program. Talbot said the academic counselor, hired earlier this year, tracks students’ grades and other metrics. When red flags come up, be it a low score on a quiz or a missing assignment, the counselor reaches out to the student, parent, teacher and if needed, administrators.
Often, Talbot said, teachers busy with lesson plans, grading and lectures may not notice those subtle signs when a student is struggling.
Early last month nearly 400 educators from districts across the county and region attended the Eastern Oregon Regional Educators Network’s fall professional development day at Four Rivers Cultural Center.
Workshops offering tools and strategies to teach reading, writing and language acquisition were among the sessions aimed at teaching kids how to read with different techniques.
In a Friday email, McBride said the Vale School District is evaluating programs and data trends and getting feedback from the community about priorities ahead of sending its yearly strategic plan to the state.
Johnson said the results are alarming and there are a lot of tough questions to grapple with.
“Obviously, the pandemic was not good for kids learning, but why did some do better than others?” Johnson said. “Those are legitimate questions the public wants to know, and we want to know.”