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Learning With Less: As Tests Grow In Importance, Do Students Improve?

Oregon’s governor is pushing a bill this legislative session that could put even greater emphasis on graduation rates and test scores.

Some education advocates say schools are already focusing too much on tests, in response to shrinking resources. With that in mind, OPB’s Rob Manning checked in with teachers and students as they recover from first semester finals.

In this installment of our “Learning with Less” series, he reports on the intersection of school budget cuts and high expectations in Forest Grove.


Neil Armstrong seventh-grader Brianna Garcia

Rob Manning / OPB

Brianna Garcia had straight A’s in elementary school. Her mother, Maricela, reads off Brianna’s online report card from her first term in 7th grade at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Forest Grove.

“So, honors science she got a B, Psychology she got an A, Algebra a C, Language Arts she got a B….” Brianna’s mother reads.

Middle school is harder. And Neil Armstrong may be especially tough. The school’s a year and a half into using a system that teachers like Laura Ruffner call “grading-by-proficiency.”

“To me, the idea of grading-by-proficiency is a way to ensure that we’re not moving kids into deeper curriculum until they’ve gotten one set of knowledge,” Rufner explains.

The system checks whether students have that “one set of knowledge” by basing 90 percent of grades on test and quiz results. Homework is ten percent, but it’s important for another reason. Assignments serve as pre-requisites for a student to take a test.

Brianna’s last class of the day is honors geography. The teacher, Mr. Pappas, goes over the assignments he’s requiring for a test later in the week.

“These seven things, but really two through six, or two through seven, in terms of showing me tomorrow, they need to all be done….” Pappas says,

If students do poorly on the tests, they can try again – but only after they’ve gotten further instruction, and developed further evidence that they’re ready.

Last semester, Brianna Garcia stayed after school regularly, went to Saturday school twice, and re-tested often. She managed to turn C’s in Language Arts and Science into B’s. She says it wasn’t easy.

Rob Manning / OPB

“You do bad on a quiz or something, you have to do a re-test like worksheet so she knows you’re ready for the test.  A lot of things to do at the end, also, because it was the end of the semester, so yeah, it was very hard.” Brianna says she stresses about two things at the same time: her current classwork, and whether to re-take her last test.

“It’s like, really hard, because you have to focus on what’s going on right now, so you don’t mess up a test – one that’s coming up. And then you’re trying to think of things that you did wrong, so you can fix those things.”

Teachers argue that it’s better for students to learn to balance these kinds of demands in middle school than when the stakes are higher at Forest Grove High.

Grading-by-proficiency means more work for Neil Armstrong teachers, too. Last year, they spent hours after school, re-teaching and re-testing.

Social studies teacher, Drennan Wesley, says a new schedule included time to do that during the school day. But budget cuts have meant teachers are responsible for more kids – and therefore, more tests and assignments. He says that can be bad news for students who fall behind.

“A student who has a D, and is struggling, and kind of things are compounding, and that student doesn’t advocate for themself, or doesn’t have a parent that calls you once or twice – they are in danger, in a larger classroom, of being left behind.” Wesley says his department has seen more D’s and F’s.

Other teachers say students are more engaged now and getting better grades since “grading-by-proficiency” started.

Brianna’s mother, Maricela, says she pushed her daughter a lot at the beginning of the school year. But she says Brianna has gotten better at tracking her own progress. On this afternoon, Brianna visits her Algebra teacher Jill Durham, and learns she’s behind on her assignments.

Brianna Garcia: “So, I had to turn it in, so now I have to re-do another one again, and then turn it in.”

Jill Durham: “Do they stamps on them?”

Brianna Garcia: “Yeah.”

Rob Manning / OPB

Jill Durham: “So make sure you turn in the original thing that has the stamp on it, so you get full credit.”

The system of pre-requisites, tests, and re-tests varies from teacher to teacher. That’s one of mother, Maricela’s biggest frustrations. Social studies teacher, Drennan Wesley, says rules are consistent within departments – but not across seventh grade, for instance.

“It’s a balance, but I think the model definitely does need more alignment within teachers and within departments, but I think that comes as the school gets more experience with the system,” Wesley says.

Parent, Maricela Garcia, suggests anything the school can do to make the system simpler for students and parents can help everyone learn.


Sources for this story came to us via our Public Insight Network. Learn how you can become a source and share what you know at

On Tuesday, Feb. 28th at 6:30 p.m., OPB is hosting a listening session on budget cuts to education for teachers, parents, administrators, and more. If you have insights or story ideas for our newsroom, we’d love to hear from you. E-mail for details.

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