In this Jan. 17, 2016, photo, a sign at the entrance to a hall warns people that testing is in progress.

In this Jan. 17, 2016, photo, a sign at the entrance to a hall warns people that testing is in progress.

Alex Brandon/AP

Students across the country start taking standardized tests in third grade, as 8-year-olds still learning to type. They take them every spring until high school, when they take them just once. So every year, Oregon schools spend weeks shuttling hundreds of thousands of Oregon students into computer labs to take the lengthy, rigorous exams. 

“Our standards are much more rigorous than they were in the past, the assessment is also much more rigorous,” said Colt Gill, Oregon’s deputy superintendent of public instruction.

“It’s not what most of us experienced from a test when we were in school.”

A few years ago, Oregon shifted from the old multiple-choice “OAKS” tests (which stands for Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) to the multi-state “SBAC” (or Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) exams, bringing a new routine: a tough set of tests that most students in Oregon struggle to pass — especially students of color and those from low-income or foreign-language backgrounds.

Average test scores went up a bit from 2017 to 2018 in English Language Arts, or reading. In 2017, 53.6 of Oregon students scored proficient on their grade-level exams. In 2018, that went up to 54.9 percent.

“We do know that every grade level, and nearly every student group, saw an increased score in English Language Arts,” Gill said.

But the state also saw some declines in math — a decline from 40.8 percent proficient a year ago to 40.5 percent in 2018 — and Gill said results on those tests were “pretty much flat.”

Finding new takeaways from 2018’s test results proved elusive, even to state officials tasked with analyzing the results to guide policy and spending decisions.

“I’ve been scanning some of the larger school districts, and I think a lot of them — Beaverton, Portland, Salem —it doesn’t seem to be any dramatic change from prior years,” said Jon Wiens, who supervises reporting and accountability for the state education department.

As Wiens pointed out, the results for Oregon’s three largest districts largely reflected the state as a whole:

  • Beaverton’s ELA results were already above the state average, and they continued to outpace the state, rising to 65.9 percent of students passing in 2018. Like the state, math scores were lower in 2018 and fell, to 54.6 percent passing.
  • Portland Public Schools saw the same pattern: results that are above the state average, remaining above Oregon as a whole, with nearly 61 percent of students passing the ELA test. math scores went down to 47.7 percent passing.
  • Salem-Keizer’s scores remain below the state average in both English Language Arts and math, but unlike Beaverton and PPS, Salem’s passing rates went down on both exams — to 48.6 percent passing on the ELA exams and 34 percent in math.

Year after year, Oregon school districts with the lowest levels of poverty tend to have the highest test scores. And those with the largest number of students from low-income backgrounds tend to have the lowest scores.

Of the state’s three largest school districts, Salem-Keizer has by far the most students who qualify for free lunch — 61.1 percent — and its test scores are significantly lower than the other two districts of its approximate size. Portland and Beaverton have free lunch populations around 36 percent.

Conversely, the highest passing rates from year-to-year tend to be small or medium-sized school districts with relatively small numbers of students from low-income backgrounds: Lake Oswego (where 8 percent of students qualify for free lunch), Sherwood (15 percent), West Linn-Wilsonville (19 percent) and Riverdale, where so few students qualify for free lunch that a number can’t be published.

Achievement gaps based on income are significant in Oregon, with only 42 percent of “economically disadvantaged” students passing the English Language Arts exams, and 28 percent passing math. But the larger gaps are those based on ethnicity.

Passing rates for black students improved last year, but remain well below the Oregon average. On the ELA test, 32 percent of Oregon’s African-American students passed; in math, just 17.6 percent passed. Those are differences of about 20 percentage points with the state averages of 55 percent (ELA) and just over 40 percent (math). 

The gaps are similar, though not as large for Native American students, with 38.6 percent passing the ELA test and 24.2 percent passing math.

Oregon is certainly not alone in struggling to close enormous gaps affecting students of color. Now that Oregon, Washington and California are all taking Smarter Balanced exams, it’s possible to compare results across state lines much more easily.

The most recent test results in Washington showed better results overall, but gaps of a similar size for black students — about 20 percentage points on both the English exam and math. The gaps facing Native-American students appear larger in Washington than in Oregon. California’s scores for African-American and Native-American students closely mirrored those in Oregon, with significant gaps in both ELA and math.

Officials in Oregon acknowledge they’re facing a national problem, but believe they’re on the right track to address them. They point to a 4 percentage point improvement for Native-American students last year as evidence that a recent attendance initiative and other efforts are paying off.

“I don’t think that we can tie all the gains to that specifically — we do know that those programs are making a difference in having more students attend school more regularly who are part of the [attendance pilot program], and then we know that the scores for those students are also going up,” Gill said.

Gill said Oregon has invested in programs aimed at helping African-American students and those from foreign-language backgrounds, a group that has gaps of 30 or 40 percentage points with the state average on the language-rich Smarter Balanced tests.

Getting students to school is certainly part of the equation when it comes to getting them the necessary skills to pass state exams. But Gill said the assessment also reflects the heightened expectations of what students should know. The exams include multi-step word problems in math, and lengthy writing exercises in English. Schools have to get students prepared to think critically and problem-solve, Gill said.

“Our students need more support in learning how to complete complex thinking skills,” Gill said.

Since its inception, the Smarter Balanced test, or SBAC test, has drawn controversy for its length, cost and intensity. Gill said in 2018, the test was shorter, particularly the English portion, and he said state officials are continuing to look for ways to trim it further. Still, many students decline to take the exam, leading to participation rates below the federal standard of 95 percent on both the English and math portions.

“Opt-out” rates are highest among Oregon high school students, many of whom are already taking SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement exams in the spring when the state tests are administered.

Earlier this year, Oregon officials considered replacing the high school portion of the Smarter Balanced exam with a different standardized exam, such as the SAT or ACT. State education leaders ultimately concluded it wasn’t feasible, and high school students will still be expected to take the Smarter Balanced exams in spring 2019. 

Many parents and teachers have lobbied to reduce the role of standardized testing in Oregon public schools.

Colt Gill is arguing the other direction.

Gill agrees that Smarter Balanced exams offer a single “snapshot” taken in the spring, with results waiting until the fall to reach schools, meaning it has little value for individual classroom teachers. But he said the exams help guide spending and policy decisions, such as the efforts to help Native-American students that appear to be bearing fruit.

Rather than scale back on the “summative” exams that students take in the spring, Gill wants teachers to do more assessments throughout the school year.

“We do believe in a balanced assessment system and we would like to see a greater investment in balanced assessment systems, so that teachers do have all the tools - most of the other states that use Smarter Balanced have other assessment measures that do include formative and interim assessment measures,” Gill said.