Eighth grade achievement audit shows troubling gap


English language learners and disabled students show most need for improvement locally

by: KEVIN SPERL - Jewelisa Toledo takes notes at one of the energy transfer stations in Tim Cummins' eighth grade science class.

Today's educational models are all about assessing student's progress, from the time they enter Kindergarten to their graduation from High School.

The latest audit of OAKS testing scores by the Oregon Secretary of State's office has found that minority and economically disadvantaged eighth-graders were significantly behind their peers in learning. Additionally, African-American, Hispanic and Native American students were at least a year behind their peers in reading and math, while economically disadvantaged students were at least a year behind in math.

"Oregon must improve achievement for all students, especially minority and disadvantaged students who are falling further behind. This audit is a first step to shine a spotlight on the need to improve achievement for all students and close the achievement gap for minority and economically disadvantaged students," said Secretary of State Kate Brown.

Crook County Middle School Principal Kurt Sloper is well aware of the importance of an eighth-grader's success leading into their first semester in high school.

“The first semester of a student's freshman year is the most important in high school,” he said. “Students that get two or more F's in their first term get far behind, and it can soon become insurmountable.”

A collaboration between the assistant principals of the middle school and high school targets those students identified as high risk.

“Every student in our school has a reading and math goal, based on improvement,” explained Sloper. “We track if they have met their growth target and the achievement benchmarks. We calculate a student's performance based on past performance.”

Stacy Smith, director of curriculum and instruction with the Crook County School District, explained that initial Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) benchmarks were set at the 1997-98 state average for reading and math grade level achievements. The following year, which was the first year tested, scores were compared to that benchmark.

“In general, we look for an improvement of five points each year,” he said. “We ask if a student in our district has improved by at least five points from previous measurements, each year.”

For Smith, there are a number of identifiable achievement gaps during a students tenure, in addition to eighth grade.

“Students entering kindergarten are completely vulnerable. Then, there is the kindergarten through second grade years that teach to the standards but lack assessment measurements,” he said. “Finally, there is the transition out of high school into college or a career.”

The state report noted that there are significant social and economic consequences for low achievement. Lower achieving students are less likely to graduate from high school and Oregonians without a high school diploma are more likely to be unemployed, receive public assistance, and be incarcerated at some point in their lifetime.

The audit looked at OAKS scores in math and reading over several years, comparing minority and white student scores. It also compared scores of economically disadvantaged students to a group of non-disadvantaged students.

Smith explained that Crook County uses Oregon Department of Education report card data to monitor district sub groups.

“Traditionally we do well with our Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students,” said Smith. “It is our English Language Learners and students with disabilities that exhibit the largest gap for our district.”

The states audit identified areas schools, that exhibited the smallest gap, employed in order to succeed including a safe and positive school environment, high expectations and support, and teacher collaboration.

Sloper described a number of initiatives at the middle school that implemented these concepts.

“Our goal is to have the same group of adults with the same group of students within an academic year, building relationships,” he said. “I believe that significant learning does not occur without a significant relationship.”

Setting expectations for each student helps the school determine if a student is meeting their potential.

“We are able to measure each student's ability to achieve their growth target,” he said. “We do a lot of progress monitoring for students and are able to offer support classes in reading and comprehension when needed.”

Sloper also ensures that the school celebrates a student's success, handing out “Colt Kudos” whenever earned.

“On Fridays, we randomly draw from those that have earned Kudos,” he said. “Students can win a bike or an iPod, for example.”

For the next academic year, district educators are preparing themselves for even worse results.

“When we move to Common Core, we are all expecting lower scores because it will be new,” said Smith. “I feel that testing to the Common Core standard will be three times harder than OAKS, with the depth of knowledge required to get questions right.”

Smith explained that OAKS testing, which is multiple choice-based, gives students a 25 percent chance of being right, even if they guess.

“With Smarter Balanced (the new testing procedure associated with Common Core), students can't guess,” he said. “You have to now the skill or topic well to get the assessment correctly.”

The Oregon Teachers Union agrees with Smith, as the representative organization for Oregon's 40,000 teachers has asked state Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton to cancel next spring's Common Core reading and math tests, saying that the new exams are unproven, too hard and would harm students by making most of them feel like failures.

Educators across Oregon have expressed their need for time, tools and resources to gain a deep understanding of the new Common Core Standards, assess their appropriateness, collaborate with colleagues, work with parents and adjust their curriculum, lesson plans and classroom instruction to ensure students are successful.

Smith said that the first Smarter Balanced testing is scheduled to be administered in April of 2015.

“We need to set up classrooms differently and teach from a more complex text,” he said. “Also, the levels of difficulty are being pushed into lower grades. For example, we have taught the bulk of fractions in sixth grade and Common Core has pushed that topic into third grade.”

Smith concedes that Common Core is all about graduating students that are ready for college, or the working world.

“There is a shift towards more complex information from which students must form an opinion,” he said. “It will teach students about voracity and, in this age of tremendous information, it is crucial for kids to separate the credible form the noncredible.”

Practice tests for the upcoming Smarter Balance assessment tests that are tied to the new Common Core curriculum, scheduled to be implemented in Crook County in 2014-15 are available on-line at www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sa/practicetest.asp. See if you are as smart as an eight-grader!

The state audit report on the eight grade achievement gap can be found at sos.oregon.gov/audits.