Malheur County students made modest gains in key subjects, but reading, writing and math scores highlight steep learning declines from pandemic-related disruptions as county education mull strategies to help students catch up.
Students took the annual assessment tests, called Smarter Balance tests, during the spring of 2023.
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, according to the state Education Department.
The Smarter Balance test is used to evaluate students at the end of the school year, which is beneficial in looking at overall education levels and school performance, according to Mark Redmond, Malheur County Education Service District superintendent.
Nick Ketterling, superintendent of the Adrian School District, said an aspect that needs to be considered when reviewing state test scores is that they are a one- or two-day snapshot of student’s learning for an entire year.
“Many variables can come into play during those couple of days that may affect their performance,” he said. “All data points are equally important as each of them can tell a different story.”
Redmond declined to comment in detail about the test scores. He said the county’s scores continue to underscore the steep learning declines that educators are seeing nationwide. However, the assessment tests do show that the county is beginning to close the gap from pre-pandemic levels. But not fast enough, he said.
In Ontario, the largest school district in the county, only about three out of 10 students in grades K-12 can read at their grade level based on the state’s test scores. Additionally, the reading scores were down 4% from last year’s results.
In 2022, 38.6% of Ontario’s kids in each grade scored proficient. This year, students dipped to 34.1%. Ontario’s students are a little more than 10% below the district’s pre-Covid levels when 45.3% of students tested at grade level in 2019.
Ontario’s reading scores were more than 10% below the state’s 43% proficiency in 2023.
Hispanic students of all grades tested at 29.8% in reading in 2023. That was down from 33.5% in 2022, but above the state’s average of 26.5% in 2023.
To read proficiently means a child can readily read, analyze text and write at their grade level. To perform at grade level on the state tests means that a student can meet the learning expectations in the grade they have been placed in.
Ronda Fritz, an associate professor at Eastern Oregon University’s College of Education and the director of the Reading Clinic, a program that teaches educators how to teach reading, said reading is a foundational skill vital to student success in every subject. Fritz said students who can’t understand written material will struggle to learn math, science, or other topics.
Fritz said students who cannot read proficiently by the end of third grade are likely to face dismal outcomes later in life, including dropping out of school, emotional and social issues, and a greater chance of going to jail or prison. The reason why the end of third grade is crucial a time, Fritz said, is that students go from learning to read, to reading to learn.
In 2023, Ontario third graders saw an improvement in their reading scores, with 28.7% proficient, up from 24.5% in 2022. Grade 3 test scores are still down from their pre-pandemic levels, when 31.2% were reading at grade level in 2019.
Grade 3 readers in Ontario scored more than 10% below the state’s 39.4% average.
Meantime, Ontario juniors brought their reading scores up to 55% in 2023, up from 52.9% in 2022, which was well above the state’s 46.2% average. Still, the juniors were still below pre-Covid levels when students scored 59.2% proficient.
In math, juniors, who were at 16.6% in 2022, made a modest gain in 2023, improving scores to 16.8%. In 2019 juniors were at 16.2% proficiency.
Ontario eighth grade math scores dropped to 8.8% at grade level, down from 26.2% proficiency in 2022. Eighth graders in Ontario struggle to regain ground from where they were before the pandemic when 42.1% tested at grade level.
In science, Ontario students in each grade were at 21.6% grade level, down from 22.1% in 2022 and below pre-pandemic levels when students tested at 26.2%.
Taryn Smith, the district’s public relations coordinator, noted that while the district is below the state average, it is about the same – sometimes better – when compared to some districts that historically have similar demographics. Additionally, she said the tests do not measure other aspects of growth, such as student learning, academic, creativity, problem-solving skills, and social and emotional development.
She pointed out the district uses multiple data points in combination with other measures that allow educators to measure growth, which, she said, is a better measure of student learning.
“This is a more complete indicator of student success,” she said, “especially for the large number of students in our district whose learning has been greatly hindered by poverty from their earliest years.”
Malheur County’s child poverty rate is 36%, the worst in Oregon for the last decade.
Smith said the district uses “formative” assessments to measure how students are doing in real time and adjust accordingly.
The standardized tests, which are “summative,” can be potentially biased against certain groups of students, including students of color and those living in poverty.
“We feel strongly that academic growth is a better measure of student learning,” Smith said.
Academic growth, she said, is more motivating for students.
Students who are struggling academically may become discouraged if they see that they are not performing well on standardized tests, she said. However, Smith said, tracking academic growth can help students to see their progress and to stay motivated to learn.
“Academic growth,” she said, is also more important for students living in poverty because it is a predictor of future success.
Nonetheless, while the scores are important to measure competencies.
“What these assessments do not capture is all of the barriers and gray areas of our students’ lives,” Smith said.
“Our kids, as well as all of the other students across the nation, were faced with many challenges over the past several years,” Smith said.
To expect students to test at the same level that they did prior to schools shutting down would be “naive,” she said.
The district’s administrators and teachers are committed to filling in the gaps that were created over the last several years, she said. However, she said, sometimes those gaps are need-based, from social and emotional to housing and food insecurity. Other times, she said, those needs are improving proficiency in math, reading and writing.
“We are focused on educating and supporting the whole student,” she said.
With that, she said, each school is considering its respective “strengths and weaknesses” based on the test scores. The schools also are digging into attendance records to address “chronic absenteeism,” which directly impacts student achievement.
She said the district has a “renewed focus” on early literacy and hired a literacy coach to support instructional coaches throughout the district. That new coach also will apply for an early learning grant from the state.
In Nyssa, students at all levels tested at 40.2% for reading in 2023, up from 34.8% in 2022. Nyssa’s reading scores are still slightly below pre-pandemic levels when kids read at 43.4% grade level in 2019.
Meantime, the district’s third grade readers improved in 2023, testing at 39.6% grade level, up from 28.2% in 2022. Nyssa’s reading levels were above the state average of 39.4%.
Hispanic students in all grades tested at 28.6% grade levels, above the state’s 26.5% average in 2023 and up from their 2022 scores at 25.4%. That is still down from 2019, where students tested at 33.5% proficiency.
In math, 30.7% tested at grade level, up from 28.4% in 2022 and 29.5% in 2019. Nyssa students saw a big gain in science, testing at 30.5% grade level, up from 16.4% in 2022 and 26.7% in 2019.
Ryan Hawkins, interim superintendent of the Nyssa School District, said he was happy to see the district above the state’s average and that the 10% improvement was encouraging.
Vale reading scores across all grades went from 49.2% in 2022 to 50.3% in 2023 but are still down from 59.5% in 2019.
Meantime, Hispanic students in all grades, who
, in 2022 tested at 34.3% proficiency jumped to 36.9%, well above the state’s 26.5% state average.
Meanwhile, Vale third graders dropped from 40.7% in 2022 to 28.8% in 2023, down from 60.7% in 2019.
Math scores saw a slight improvement from 38.4% in 2022 to 38.8 in 2023, but above the school’s 35.8% score in 2019.
Alisha McBride, Vale superintendent said grades 7, 8 and 11 performed up to nearly 25% above the state averages in math and reading, as did 8th graders and juniors in science.
McBride said the district won’t be satisfied until every kid is at grade level. With that, she said the district is studying the state’s early learning initiative and how to use new state money. Vale is eligible to receive over $78,000 in the 2023-24 school year and over $80,000 in 2024-24.
Adrian saw a jump in reading scores with 65.4% of students testing at grade level, up from 55.4% in 2022 and 64.3% in 2019. Third graders tested at 66.7%, up from 65% in 2022 and 50% in 2019.
Math students saw a slight improvement from 2022, when students tested at 43.4% proficiency. In 2023 students tested at 46.4% grade level, well above the state’s 30.6% average.
Students in science dropped from 64.2% in 2022 to 56.5% in 2023, up from 54.8% in 2019.
Ketterling said the district’s math curriculum will help with consistency and growth throughout all grades and that he expects that to be reflected on growth and state assessments.
At Harper Charter, one of the smallest schools in Malheur County with 242 students enrolled in 2021-22, students in each grade tested at 51.1% proficiency in reading, up from 50% in 2022 and 34.9% in 2019.
Superintendent Ron Talbot, who did not respond to Enterprise’s request for comment, said a year ago that the district had been addressing 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 2023, math students tested at 35.6% proficiency, up from 35% in 2022 and up from 32.6% in 2019.
Preparing educators to teach reading
As educators across the state grapple with pandemic-induced learning losses, early literacy has become the focus, in part due to state lawmakers allocating $150 million to help districts raise reading scores across the state.
Fritz established the Reading Clinic in 2021 to help train educators to teach reading. To get kids to read proficiently, educators must change the way teach reading, she said.
The Reading Clinic allows elementary school teachers to practice reading instruction on individual students, Fritz said.
Fritz said research has shown that flawed instructional methods that rely on memorization, using pictures and guessing at words based on context can have lasting negative effects on reading ability.
, the science of reading focuses on five categories of reading: phonemic awareness, a student’s ability to hear and manipulate sounds and words, phonics, letter and sound associations, vocabulary fluency and comprehension. The method is backed up by nearly 50 years of research on how the brain decodes language and makes meaning out of written text, she said.
She teaches educators how to build lessons using phonics, correlating sounds with letters and letter combinations, and building on that knowledge to help kids read more confidently, she said. From there, students move into writing and comprehending more complex words and sentences.
Fritz has taught the 10-week training to educators around eastern Oregon and across the state. She has trained four teachers from Nyssa.
She said educators have felt very empowered after the training.
“They’re just so excited to finally have the tools that they can use to help their kids,” she said.
In August, Fritz was appointed to Gov. Tina Kotek’s Early Literacy Educator Prep Council. Kotek created the council to evaluate reading instruction at Oregon’s teacher colleges and recommend changes to state teaching licensing standards. Fritz said the members agree they want better reading outcomes for kids, but she anticipates there will be resistance to changing reading instruction.
“We’ll just have to work through it,” she said, “We can do better for kids.”
Meantime, Fritz said Oregon needs systemic change to improve student reading skills.
“We can’t intervene our way out of poor classroom instruction,” she said. “It really has to be a full on system approach.”
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