For the first time since the start of COVID-19, schools may be stabilizing academically.
The Oregon Department of Education on Thursday released the results from its spring 2023 summative tests in English, math and science.
More students participated than throughout the pandemic, which gives state researchers a stronger pool to analyze and understand the status of education today. The good news? Test scores in some areas are reaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels.
However, across the board, results are still bleak.
While participation in the Oregon Statewide Assessments has increased, it hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels, and the state isn’t meeting federal requirements when it comes to the share of students taking standardized tests.
Most importantly, the majority of Oregon students aren’t yet proficient in key subject areas, which indicates they likely aren’t on track for college or work once they leave high school.
The data shows less than half of Oregon’s students – about 43% – tested proficient in English language arts this past spring, meaning more than 148,300 students aren’t where they need to be.
The proficiency rate drops to about 30% for math and only 29% for science.
Rates are often lower for English language learners, students of color, students with disabilities and those facing economic hardship.
No single test can ‘tell the whole story’
English and math tests are given to Oregon students in grades 3-8 and 11 every year. Science tests are taken in grades 5, 8 and 11.
Experts said the tests serve as a temperature check for large-scale K-12 systems, to see how schools, districts and student demographic groups are faring. They said the tests are not meant to serve as real-time data, individual assessments or fodder for teacher evaluations.
“We know that staff and students work hard throughout the school year in so many areas that aren’t reflected in this assessment data,” said ODE Interim Director Charlene Williams.
Graduation, attendance and the rate of ninth graders on track are among myriad factors considered when looking at the success of individual schools.
“The results from a single test do not tell the whole story of education in Oregon,” Williams said, “however, they are important indicators that require our attention and more work ahead.”
Oregon’s participation paradox
This year, Oregon’s participation rates are up across all subjects and grade levels. This is important because the more students participate, the more accurate a picture the data paints.
However, the state continues to miss the federal requirement of 95% participation.
Nearly 89% of Oregon students participated in English language arts this spring, an increase of almost three percentage points compared to the year prior. More than 87% participated in math, and about 84% participated in science. Across the board, high school juniors have the lowest participation rate.
The country as a whole is still recovering from learning loss and suspended testing during the pandemic.
In the spring of 2020, the federal government waived all summative testing. There was limited participation the following year as schools began to return to in-person learning. Complete assessment resumed in the spring of 2022, but participation in Oregon still lagged. And even before the pandemic, the state’s rates were below the national benchmark.
Oregon is one of only a few states – Colorado is another, for example – that gives families the choice to opt out. Senate Bill 1583 directs the state education department to submit a waiver every year to the federal government as a result.
The relative ease of avoiding the standardized tests makes it harder for the state to meet the federal threshold, according to ODE officials. The proliferation of opt-outs also adds to the confusion of the purpose and intention of these tests.
So long as the federal government continues to mandate the use of standardized tests as a way to gauge academic performance, Oregon has an obligation to take part.
Individual districts see wins, losses
Portland Public Schools was especially proud of its results this week.
“Despite national trends that show that reading and math performance continues to decline post-pandemic, here in PPS, we’re really bucking that trend,” said Renard Adams, the district’s chief of Research, Assessment and Accountability.
Adams pointed to the fact that Portland schools are seeing steady rates or slight increases year over year in English language arts, and more significant increases in math in grades 3-8. The district’s performance exceeds the Oregon state average in many areas.
“As we think about pre-pandemic achievement, although that’s not exactly where we want to be,” Adams said, “many of our students… are showing a return to or they’re exceeding pre-pandemic performance. And so, we’re very pleased with these results.”
Adams attributed the success to the district’s “three-pronged approach to educational equity.”
This, he said, includes a unified vision for what teaching and learning should look like every day in the classroom; high-quality curricular resources at every grade level; and ongoing, job-embedded professional learning.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district following Portland, saw overall averages decline one to two percentage points. The district lagged behind the state in science, math and English language arts by about 7-11 percentage points.
New Superintendent Andrea Castañeda said student outcomes and the work they will do to improve them “have our full attention.” Deputy Superintendent Olga Cobb added, “(We) fully recognize that our system needs to move with greater focus and urgency.”
Only a third of Salem-Keizer students met proficiency for English language arts. The district’s math proficiency rate came in at about 20%, more than 10 percentage points behind the state average.
But there were some gains. For English language arts, 24 of the district’s 42 elementary schools held steady or made positive gains in scores over the previous year. Fifth-grade students in 15 elementary schools performed above the state average.
Thirty schools made improvements over the previous year in math, and seven schools made double-digit gains in science over the previous year.
“Our first order of business is getting students to school,” Castañeda said. “We cannot improve learning outcomes if our students are not in class, and we need the help of our families and our community to reinforce the importance of daily school attendance.”
State officials said this data provides a solid jumping-off point to work with individual districts.
Together, they can unpack the data and see what training, technology and other supports might be needed to improve academic performance in the future. Officials said they work with districts to determine both “ambitious and obtainable goals” depending on their starting baseline.
State leaders argue the latest data shows a great and continued need for investments from lawmakers.
In order to speed up academic growth, they’re pointing to existing programs and strategies, such as the state’s new Early Literacy Success Initiative aimed at transforming literacy instruction from birth through primary grades. They also want more out-of-school investments, student mental health support and federal funding for high-quality instruction.
“Students have shown resilience in navigating the ups and downs of learning in the pandemic,” Gov. Tina Kotek said in a statement. “These latest scores affirm the need to target state investments in our education system, including community-based summer and afterschool programs to accelerate learning and strengthen student wellbeing.”
See the state’s latest data and your school or district’s results at oregon.gov/ode/educator-resources/assessment.