Portland-area schools deploy extra efforts as test results peg Oregon’s academic slide as among worst in nati – OregonLive

Some Oregon districts are using small-group math instruction keyed to students’ missing skills like this math small group lesson in McMinnville in 2018. (Photo by Mark Graves/The Oregonian)Mark Graves
Some Oregon schools have added more hours of math instruction, offered teachers more training or switched to what they say are more effective math textbooks or reading series as they strive to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.
Districts are showing varying levels of readiness, however, to help students climb out of the deep hole where most of them landed at the end of last school year.
Compared to their counterparts nationwide, Oregon students are in dire need of an academic rescue, especially in math, new federal test results show.
Scores on the only standardized tests given to a representative sample of students in every state, released earlier this week, showed that while the nation’s students experienced staggering academic setbacks, Oregon’s experienced an even steeper slide. The state now ranks 6th worst in both fourth- and eighth-grade math, just above the worst performing states in the Deep South and Appalachia.
Oregon school performance craters relative to national averages
Scores on the only standardized achievement test given to a representative sample of students in all states reveal that Oregon schools, which once outdid national averages, produced jaw-dropping declines in student outcomes last school year.
Asked how they will assist districts in helping students recover from the precipitous setbacks, officials at the Oregon Department of Education said via spokesperson Marc Siegel that they will help districts select high quality instructional materials to use to teach math beginning next year. They also are providing districts with customized reports based on state standardized tests showing areas in which their teaching is effective and those in which the curriculum needs change.
Researchers say that as districts work on math recovery, they should strive for a consistent approach, with highly trained teachers encouraging students to grapple with big-picture math concepts and reasoning instead of just memorizing disjointed procedures.
“Mathematics is about student learning. It’s about building up solid ways of thinking,” said Ted Coe, vice president of academic advocacy in mathematics for Portland-based education research outfit NWEA. “It’s not about collecting a bunch of individual pieces, much like we’re throwing pieces into a puzzle box.”
Districts where educators are on the same page about math are going to have a better chance of moving the needle on recovery, said Kirk Walters, director of mathematics at education research nonprofit WestEd. Ideally, principals and teachers would have a strong understanding of an evidence based core curriculum, ongoing professional development and feedback on how well their instruction has worked, Walters said.
Walters pointed to encouraging evidence that high-quality tutoring can effectively help students make up lost ground as well, but emphasized that those tutors also need to be well-trained.
“Let’s make sure that everybody who’s part of this instructional system is on board with how we do math, how we teach it, because if it’s not coherent, and it’s not, you know, integrated throughout the day, throughout grades, it’s just going to have to be retaught,” he said.
Virtually no Oregon districts are deploying tutors as part of their recovery strategy, however, according to an informal Oregonian/OregonLive survey of districts and local education coverage by newsrooms around the state.
Teachers are under simultaneous pressure to slow down and speed up math instruction to help students catch up, said Mark Freed, math education specialist with the Oregon Department of Education. The challenge of recovering unfinished learning is to both set high expectations and teach students grade level material while also giving students the chance to learn previous material they missed, ideally in the context of current lessons, he said.
The Hillsboro School District is leaning on small group work and extra middle school math classes to fill in missing building blocks while moving forward with grade-level instruction, Assistant Superintendent Audrea Neville said. The district is offering an extra math support class during the school day for some sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders and extra academic work in a variety of after-school programs, she said.
The district also operated what she called “robust” summer learning programs this summer and plans to do so again next summer, Neville said.
The Reynolds school district, which had among the worst results in the latest statewide Smarter Balanced tests, has hired a math teacher to help fellow teachers support students in kindergarten through 8th grade across the district, and it plans to implement a new curriculum next school year. Educators will spend this year reviewing instructional materials recommended by the Oregon Department of Education, said Rachel Aazzerah, director of assessment and system improvement.
Aazzerah also said teachers use interim math assessments three times a year in second through 10th grade to determine where students have gaps in understanding and need extra support.
Portland Public Schools is focused on helping students catch up by strengthening its teachers’ skills, said Patrice Woods, the district’s director of K-5 mathematics and science. It held two three-day professional development institutes in June and August, emphasizing math and language arts instruction, which 750 elementary educators attended.
The district is also gathering teachers for a dozen 80-minute after-school training sessions throughout the year. The sessions focusing on math and language arts build upon each other and help teachers take full advantage of newly-adopted math instructional materials, Woods said.
The McMinnville school district has long boasted math scores above state average, which district officials attribute to strategies they used to accelerate students in math even before the pandemic, said Kourtney Ferrua, McMinnville’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
The district has doubled the amount of time middle school students spend learning math. The 90 minutes each day allow students time to practice and ask questions and teachers to recognize gaps in understanding and repair them with students individually.
“It’s not about buying a new curriculum or investing in some computer products that will help with intervention, it really is about recognizing that recovery from the pandemic takes an investment of time and commitment with kids,” Ferrua said.
Standardized tests do not measure all the important skills and attitudes that schools strive to provide their students. But policymakers have long relied on results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to fairly compare student performance over time, from state to state and among some large urban districts.
Oregon departed most from national averages in the latest results not in the share of students performing a little below the rigorous grade-level standards but in students scoring “below basic.” The tests’ designers characterize “below basic” performance as failing to even partially master fundamental grade-level reading and math knowledge.
Dan Farley, Oregon’s assistant superintendent for research, testing and accountability, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that districts need to focus the extra resources made possible by an infusion of state and federal funding on those mired at the below-basic level.
The state does not, however, systematically monitor school districts’ spending of the extra money they’re receiving from the state and the federal government to ensure it is in fact spent on students furthest behind or that districts’ strategies are paying off.
Tina Kotek, the Democratic candidate for governor, has pledged she would direct the Oregon Department of Education to hold school districts accountable, specifically by requiring them to be more transparent about student outcomes. She has called on the agency to more closely monitor districts and provide more support to those it finds are struggling.
She also has pledged to emphasize early reading instruction so students read proficiently by third grade. She wants to ensure educators have the training and ongoing coaching they need to follow the science of reading and that students who are behind get the extra learning time and intensive support they need to hit the third-grade benchmark.
Christine Drazan, the Republican candidate for governor, said in a statement that she would push the state to increase the amount of classroom learning time for students, either by lengthening the school year or lengthening school days. Drazan would also target more resources to students struggling with the basics, such as by adding classroom assistants, increasing the amount of instruction time dedicated to core curriculum and expanding before and after school programs and academic-focused summer programs.
She also wants to increase transparency on how schools are doing, by enhancing school report cards and requiring schools to show how extra resources are being used to help students. Drazan wants to increase school choice and resume a requirement that students demonstrate high school-level math, reading and writing skills in order to graduate.
Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson offered fewer details than Drazan and Kotek but said she would also restore the requirement for students to demonstrate “essential skills” to graduate. Johnson said she would “demand accountability for per pupil spending and improvements in student achievement” and “when necessary, I’ll take on the teachers’ union to put students’ needs first.” She also said she’d give parents more choices in the school their student attends.
Hillary Borrud, lead politics reporter for The Oregonian/OregonLive, contributed to this report.
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— Sami Edge; sedge@oregonian.com; @Sami_Edge
— Betsy Hammond; betsyhammond@oregonian.com; @ChalkUp
— Rose Wong; rwong@oregonian.com; @RoseBWong
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