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Schools Struggle With Assessing 'Essential Skills'

It's graduation season, and that means thousands of proud parents have watched their grinning high school grad cross a stage to grasp a diploma and shake a school leader's hand.

That walk will get tougher in the years to come, especially for the Class of 2012.

They'll have to earn more credits. And, as Rob Manning reports, state education leaders are now wrestling with how to  make sure  students have the ‘essential skills’ they will need in the real world.

Seventeen years ago, Oregon thought it had the high school graduation thing licked.

In 1991, lawmakers created the Certificates of Initial and Advanced Mastery, or the CIM and CAM. But the certificates were never required.

Students thought they were a waste of time, and colleges ignored them. So Republican representative, Linda Flores, led the charge to drop them.

Linda Flores: “The CIM and the CAM were kind of a top-down driven process, and a grand experiment, but didn’t produce the kind of results, perhaps, that had been hoped.”

So last year, the state board of education began crafting new requirements for a high school diploma.  The first order of business: more years of math, English, and science.

But the more complicated task has been figuring out how to assess so-called ‘essential skills’, like math, and critical thinking. One idea is to require an ‘exit exam’ at the end of high school.

That prospect  has some students a little  stressed out.

Zane Evans: “I think that’d be, like, one of the most stressful things you’ve ever done. Because all of a sudden, you need to remember all the things you’ve ever done, and if you don’t do it, you’re kind of screwed.”

That’s Scappoose High School ninth grader, Zane Evans. She actually doesn’t need to worry. She’s a freshman, and any exit exam would start when current 8th graders finish high school.

But Zane’s math teacher, Emily Anderson, says an exit exam doesn’t need to make anyone nervous.

Emily Anderson: “If we’re ultimately doing our jobs, to get these kids to master these skills, it shouldn’t be a problem, however we want to get there. It really shouldn’t be a problem.”

At Scappoose High, teachers are preparing students by narrowly focusing instruction on state standards, or skills.

Emily Anderson: “Do we have anybody who has missed two skills or less? That means you have only two or less….”

Students: “How about none?”

Emily Anderson: “Sure, none….”

The argument goes, if instructors focus on specific skills, students will have no problem getting their credits, and passing ‘essential skills’ tests, like applied math. Anderson says focus takes discipline, but kids appreciate it.

Emily Anderson: “It’s very easy as a teacher, to get off-track, or say ‘I really like this topic - in any subject area – so let’s stay here a little longer.’ But this is, you know, you’ve got 23 standards this trimester you need to pass this class. These are the skills you’re going to need to pass these. And kids come in ‘that’s all I need to know?.’ Yeah, that’s it, but you’ve got to master them, which means you have to do them the correct way every time you’re tested on them.”

Freshman Ryan Hess says having those multiple chances  has helped him improve on the poor math grades he got last year.

Ryan Hess: “Now, I’ve had an ‘A’ like the whole time. Just because, you know, they give you chances to come in and make up the standards, if you get it wrong on the test. They’re really consistent, they keep going, and going, and going, and it gets boring, but it’s really good, because you get it on the test, you know, it’s like second nature.”

Down the hall from math class, biology instructor Rebecca Steinke is also using state standards. There’s no biology ‘essential skill.’ Still, she’s distrustful of an exit exam that would test related essential skills, like ‘critical thinking.’

Rebecca Steinke: “I have a philosophy since doing standards-based, it’s that there’s no such thing as a bad test-taker, there’s only a bad test. And unfortunately, if you create an exit exam, it’s going to be limited in what’s going to be covered. It’s not going to be comprehensive, and it could be asked in such a way that the student’s not able to show their true proficiency.” 

Like math teacher Emily Anderson, Steinke gives students multiple chances to demonstrate they’re learning. They can re-take tests and quizzes, but they can also be less formal about it, too.

Rebecca Steinke: “Another way, which is the more popular way, students just literally will come up to you, when you have five or ten minutes, and say ‘let me talk to you about this standard.’  I use a rubric, and as they start talking, I’ll start at 1, and go up to 2, on up to 6 which is our highest level, and when they stop talking, I start asking questions.”

Linda Flores: “I think it’s wonderful that a teacher can have that kind of conversation with a student and affirm that they are at a particular place.”

Again, that’s Republican representative, Linda Flores.

Linda Flores: “But again, that is a subjective element, and a different teacher might have a different perspective given the same conversation with the same student.”

The kind of ‘critical thinking’ Steinke teaches, is an essential skill, that students will have to prove they have, eventually.

The disagreement between representative Linda Flores and teacher, Rebecca Steinke, is recurring at the state level.

On one hand, teachers argue that balancing a variety of options with rigorous testing is better than one size-fits-all exam. But, lawmakers like Flores, worry that too much flexibility might not lead to uniformly better high school graduates.

The state Board of education is poised to sign off on testing options for four skills this month. Next year’s freshmen will have three different ways to demonstrate reading, writing, and math skills, before they graduate, including a locally developed option.

The fourth skill board members are voting on this month is a bit harder to test. Speaking and listening are counted as one skill, districts around Oregon will come up with their own ways of measuring that.

The state board will vote on these new graduation requirements, June 19th.