Malheur County teachers work to improve literacy skills as student scores sag

With a significant share of Malheur County elementary school students reading well below grade level, educators at area school districts are taking measures to boost reading scores. 

Countywide literary scores among all districts, down from 46.5% in 2019, saw a 7% drop over the last three years. Meanwhile, those scores among the county’s Black and Latino students are down from 26% and 28% in 2019 to 21% for both student demographics this spring, according to the state’s first comprehensive assessment in three years. 

The test, administered in May, is a yearly assessment conducted by the state to measure how well schools are preparing students to read, write and do math. 

Malheur County educators note that third grade is critical in a child’s academic development. 

According to Ryan Hawkins, Nyssa School District assistant superintendent, reading is a foundational skill essential to all learning after third grade. He said research has established that students who are not adept at reading by the end of third grade will struggle to keep up in later grades and are more prone to drop out of high school. 

The state’s first reliable test scores in three years highlight a wide literary gap that preceded the pandemic among the county’s young readers. 

Mark Redmond, Malheur County Education Service District superintendent, said the measures the county’s educators are taking are “district specific.” The districts have strategies in place or are working to revise curricula and teaching methods to address the educational shortfall. 


The second largest school district in the county with 1,198 students, the district’s reading scores for students in K-5 were 29.8% in 2022, down from 39.4% in 2019 and 41.1% in 2018. 

Matt Murray, Nyssa Elementary School principal, told the Nyssa School Board during its regular meeting on Monday, Nov. 14, that a high number of kindergarten students coming into elementary school lack basic social skills. 

According to Murray, the students struggle to listen, follow instructions and get along with other kids. 

Murray said this presents a significant challenge in teaching kids how to read and write. For instance, Murray noted that in 2019 kindergarteners tested 20% below the state average in kindergarten readiness. In addition, this was the last time the state tested students on those skills. 

“We can’t really talk about the academics until we have (social skills) in place,” Murray said. 

Murray said the essential step the school is taking is that teachers meet four times a year to address where all of the students are at based on their test scores. Then, based on the student scores, they prescribe interventions in the areas where they are lacking. 

“If they are lacking in phonemic awareness, we provide phonemic awareness intervention; if they are lacking in fluency, we provide fluency intervention; if they are lacking in comprehension and so on,” Murray said. 

From there, Murray said the school tracks the individual student’s progress over six weeks. 

If those interventions are working, he said, they continue. If they are not, another approach is tried. “It’s pretty simple,” he said. “The critical part of the process is that no student is not addressed,” Murray added that students who have fallen behind in reading are getting an additional hour of classroom time with no more than four students to one instructor. In those sessions, he said, the teacher works with the students on fundamental skills, from phonemic awareness to letter and sound recognition. 

Murray said students reading below grade level would never catch up without the additional hours of instruction. 

Additionally, Murray said, students of all grades get an additional 10 minutes of phonemic and phonological awareness sessions using a teaching method dubbed the Haggerty Method, which all teachers have been trained to use. Each day, the teachers take their classes through an intensive but short session that supplements the school’s core curriculum. 

Murray said the school has partnered with Kate Barker, Oregon’s 2021 Elementary School Principal of the Year, to teach social skills to kindergarten and first graders directly. 

Barker is the principal of Cherry Park Elementary School in Portland. Barker started the school’s first pre-K social skills learning program designed to promote social and emotional learning among students. 

According to one of the elementary national associations, Barker’s pre-K social skills learning program yielded results, including improved social and academic readiness among the students who went through the program. 

Murray also said the school has been focusing on improving teacher performance. Murray said every week, the teachers participate in groups that allow them to talk about teaching methods and curriculum and have “collegial discussions.” 


In Malheur County’s largest school district, the scores were 29.1%, down from 34.4% in 2019 and 36.9% in 2018. 

The district is taking steps to close the learning gaps at Ontario schools, according to Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations coordinator. The district is implementing a reading program for students in grades three through six. 

Additionally, she said the 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 Enterprise could not reach Smith for additional details regarding the school’s new reading program or the district’s steps to shore up literary gaps among third graders. 


Student reading scores for K-5 in 2022 were 39.2%, down from 52.4% in 2019 to 41.1% in 2018. 

Superintendent Alisha McBride said the district implemented a new reading and writing curriculum in August. In addition to the new curriculum, McBride said the Vale School District uses an assessment test three times a year dubbed i-Ready. She said the assessment test allows teachers to adjust their teaching methods.
Additionally, she said the district started a summer school program two years ago. She added that in the summer courses, the teachers use that same data from the i-Ready assessments to pinpoint the areas where a student needs help.
“The instruction is tailored to the strengths and weaknesses revealed by those assessments,” McBride said. “The (instruction) could be phonemic awareness, it could be that they’re missing sight words. It could be that the student needs a review of even letter names and sounds.”
The idea, Mcbride said, is that the teachers look at those strengths and weaknesses revealed by the assessments to meet those students where they are at.
“It’s a valuable tool to help us really try to target our instruction to meet the needs of our learners,” McBride said.

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