Passing rates on required standardized tests fell by 9 percentage points across Oregon — and by even greater rates at two of the state’s largest school districts — as students took the exams for the first time last spring after two years of pandemic disruption.
The state as a whole saw passing rates on English language arts, or reading, exams fall from 53.4% in 2019 to 43.6% last spring. The trend across Oregon was similar on math exams, which saw passing rates decline from 39.4% in 2019 to 30.4% in 2022.
“We clearly know why overall our proficiency rates went down,” said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education in an interview with OPB.
“School was disrupted, school was delivered differently, families were under stress and trauma, as were educators,” Gill said. “We also know that groups in Oregon were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”
Oregon was not unique in seeing sharp declines in student achievement, as measured by standardized tests. The most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, showed precipitous drops on both reading and math tests.
The downward trend was pronounced across all student groups, according to data analyzed by ODE. Some groups slid down by a smaller margin, but that was most often the case with student groups that had lower passing rates to begin with. For instance, passing rates for students served by special education services only went down one or two percentage points, but they slid down to 16.3% passing the ELA exam and 11.6% passing math.
Among Oregon’s largest racial groups, barely half (50.3%) of Oregon’s white students passed the ELA test, while nearly two-thirds failed to pass the math exam (36.0% passing). Both white and Hispanic/Latino students saw their passing rates fall by about 9 percentage points on both ELA and math exams. But passing rates among Latino students were lower before the pandemic, resulting in passing rates of 26.9% on ELA, and 15.1% in math.
The downward trend was more precipitous than the state average in several of Oregon’s largest school districts. Salem-Keizer’s passing rates fell by more than 12 percentage points on both ELA and math. North Clackamas fell by 10 points on both exams. Beaverton and Hillsboro saw 10-point drops in their ELA passing rates, and nearly as steep a drop in math. Eugene’s declines were nearly as steep as their large neighbors up the Willamette Valley.
In an email to OPB Thursday, Salem-Keizer officials said the results on Oregon’s statewide assessments “show little correlation to the regular internal assessments Salem-Keizer Public Schools uses to assess student performance throughout the school year.” The district also said the statewide exams don’t properly measure the progress for roughly one-quarter of Salem-Keizer students who are “learning primarily in Spanish.”
“This data sets a new baseline for us as we have transitioned out of the rigid health and safety protocols required by the pandemic,” said Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry in the statement emailed to OPB. “It is one of many data points we use to evaluate our systems and make adjustments to improve student outcomes.”
Officials at some school districts sought to put the recent test results in the context of what was going last spring, when students were taking tests.
Hillsboro School District spokesperson Beth Graser told OPB in an email that last April and May was a time marked by high absentee rates for both staff and students. And tests weren’t high on the priority list for participating students.
“While our students certainly experienced learning loss as a result of the pandemic, there is also likely some degree of decline in scores that is attributable to a lack of motivation for taking standardized tests at that time,” Graser said, while also emphasizing that Hillsboro is employing a variety of approaches to help students, from small group instruction to sharing digital devices to expanding summer programs.
In a statement, North Clackamas said their district’s results remain above the state average, even if recent declines are “slightly steeper” than the state average. Officials in North Clackamas say they want a better sense of which students opted not to take the standardized tests, and what effect that has on passing rates. In a presentation, ODE said that participation rates were even lower than usual in the 2022 round of testing, and were so low at the high school level that comparisons were not reliable. State officials said their testing experts agreed to lower the acceptable participation rate to 80% for this year.
The state’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, avoided steep declines, with passing rates slipping only by 3.3% in ELA and 2% in math. PPS officials said they would comment on the latest test results later Thursday.
Bend-La Pine also avoided the steep declines experienced by other districts, with passing rates falling by less than 5% on both exams.
While ODE Director Colt Gill acknowledged the role the pandemic played in disrupting schools and student learning, but said he wasn’t interested in “second-guessing” decisions that state officials made over the past two years, such as leaning heavily on running schools online, rather than returning more quickly to in-person instruction.
“In Oregon we did prioritize lives first and we were successful in that when you look at the different data across different states around how lives were impacted of the general population of youth, of educators,” Gill said. “Oregon chose to save lives.”
Gill said he’s focused instead on efforts to accelerate learning, with an eye toward the content students need to learn in a given academic year, so they can be successful the following year.
When asked for “success stories,” top officials at ODE selected a few smaller, rural districts, and small populations within those districts.
ODE noted the success the Neah-Kah-Nie district has had with its upper elementary students, particularly third and fifth graders, who improved their English and math scores significantly, including a nearly 18-percentage point improvement at 5th grade math. In explaining their improvements, Superintendent Paul Erlebach shared a list of 27 efforts the district employed, including “think tank” discussions of instruction, office hours for teachers, and targeted staff expansions - such as a full-time school nurse and instructional technology coach.
For instance, at the North Marion School District, where overall passing rates were down, much like the rest of the state, ODE officials noted that the district’s students with disabilities showed growth.
In a statement to OPB, North Marion Superintendent Ginger Redlinger said there wasn’t one reason for the pockets of improvement at the district, including significantly higher passing rates in both ELA and math among elementary students with disabilities.
“Our staff really focused on ensuring each student, to the greatest extent possible, received education in the general education classroom and accessed grade-level content,” Redlinger said.
More broadly, Redlinger said teachers and administrators focused on the strengths students had, rather than their difficulties.
“What matters most is that we are focused on the assets that our students bring to school and building on those assets to show how much we care about students and their families through facilitating their success at school,” Redlinger said.
Gill said the state also plans to use insights officials have gained by their experience administering two grant-based funding programs that require careful planning and community engagement by school districts. Gill said the Student Success Act and High School Success program should help local and state education officials direct support for students in ways the communities will support.
As they were rolling out the results of the first statewide tests in three years, state officials noticed one common practice among a number of schools that weathered the pandemic relatively well: more tests.
“One commonality across the districts that I did connect with is that they all used interim assessment systems periodically throughout the year to evaluate how well their instruction was landing for students, and that was really important,” said Dan Farley, ODE’s administrator for research and accountability. “They were looking at all evidence they were collecting about learning and then responding to what they were learning throughout the year.”