WL-WV sees mixed results, holds its own against state averages

The West Linn-Wilsonville School District is known for excellence in education. So the news released by Oregon Department of Education on Sept. 12 that the district’s performance on statewide standardized tests dropped from the 2011-12 school year to 2012-13 could have been an unwelcome surprise.

RhoadesBut it wasn’t. Although Superintendent Bill Rhoades took the news seriously, it wasn’t really news to him or his staff. They had received students’ scores soon after tests were administered, so Rhoades first saw the scores last spring.

In response, Rhoades and other administrators, including Deputy Superintendent Jane Stickney, set to work to analyze the data, identify trouble spots and weaknesses and provide targeted coaching to teachers and students whose work may have fallen short. The district receives detailed data related to test scores, making it possible for administrators to pinpoint improvement areas.

“We absolutely have some areas of concern and we’ve been addressing them since we began receiving this data last spring,” Rhoades said.

One big target is the students whose test scores landed them in the “nearly meets” range on state testing. Small improvements in those students’ scores could bring their results to a level that meets state standards. That would improve individual schools’ results as well as the district’s overall performance.

“We look clearly at each child and create learning plans for how to accelerate them,” Stickney said.

When considering individual school’s results, such as Boeckman Creek Primary School in Wilsonville, where the percentage of third-graders meeting or exceeding the math standard dropped to 50 percent — compared to the district’s third-grade average of 69.8 percent — Rhoades cautioned against reading too much into any cohort’s performance.

For example, at Boeckman in 2011-12, 83 percent of Boeckman third-graders met or exceeded the standard. Boeckman fourth-graders in 2012-13 had 80 percent meeting or exceeding, so for that discrete class group, results dipped just 3 percent.

“It is important to look at multiple measures for each and every child,” he said. “This is a measure that was created in one day of a child’s life, six months ago.”

What’s more, both Rhoades and Stickney pointed toward the state’s changing standards regarding tests. In 2002, Oregon assessed students in reading, writing, math and math problem solving.

“From that point on until now there have been almost no years where the group of tests and the performance standards expected of students and the curriculum standards have been the same,” Rhoades said. “There’s been something different every year for a decade.”

In 2012-13, one big change was the number of times students were able to retake the Oregon Assessmen t of Knowledge and Skills, or OAKS. Taking OAKS multiple times can give students opportunity to improve their scores. In the past, students have had up to three tries to pass OAKS. In 2012-13, they had only two.

“For continuous improvement to occur, you need an opportunity to plan, do your best thinking and work, review your results,” Rhoades said. “You have valid comparisons you can make from year to year and from school to school.”

Truly standard assessments could allow the district to glean more useful data from the results. Teachers and administrators would be able to gauge the effectiveness of classroom practices as well as district procedures.

“We’re starting to look for some assessments that we know will be stable over time. This will be the third year that eighth-graders take the ACT EXPLORE — that’s a truly standard test,” Rhoades said, describing both ACT and ACT EXPLORE as examples of stable assessment geared toward one of the district’s overarching goals: college readiness.

In 2013-14, seventh- and eighth-graders will take the ACT EXPLORE test in October. Having students take the same test on consecutive years, Rhoades said, will give the district the opportunity to evaluate the effect of seventh-grade instruction.

“That’s helpful to us,” he said. “It gives us a pretty good picture.”

The district also is considering working with an organization called Northwest Evaluations Association. Before OAKS was adopted, the district used NWEA assessments.

“They have truly standardized tests that are nationwide,” Stickney said. “It’s a measuring stick that’s not shifting its scale.”

Looking beyond the drops in the district’s test results, Rhoades pointed out what he called “critical success markers,” particularly at middle and high schools.

Statewide, results dropped on the only statewide writing assessment, administered to juniors in high school. In the 2011-12 school year, 67 percent of Oregon students who took the writing assessment met the state standard. In 2012-13, just 60 percent passed. In WL-WV, 78 percent of students who took the 2012-13 writing assessment met the standard. Rhoades called that number significant.

“In the old system (of testing), there was no better predictor of high school success than fourth-grade writing,” he said. “We know how important it is.”

Students once took writing assessments, in fourth, seventh and 11th grades. Two years ago, the fourth- and seventh-grade assessments were eliminated due to statewide budget constraints.

After this school year, state standards will shift yet again as Oregon, along with other states that have adopted Common Core education standards, replaces its current tests with the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium standardized tests. The district currently is using information provided by the Oregon Department of Education to develop prototype tests teachers can use to adapt their teaching methods to Common Core standards.

“We’re moving toward Smarter Balanced with confidence, because we know what it takes to write well,” Rhoades said.

Higher up, at ODE, leaders sounded a more cautious note.

“With the adoption of the Common Core and the move to the new Smarter Balanced assessment, we will truly start to see how prepared our students are for their futures,” ODE Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton said. “Just as this year’s drop in percent met generally does not represent a true drop in performance, the larger drop we anticipate when students are tested on our new higher standards will not indicate that our students are learning less — it will simply provide a more accurate picture of how prepared students are to successfully transition from grade to grade and ultimately graduate ready for college-ready work and family-wage jobs.”

In the end, Rhoades said, test scores will improve — and students will benefit — when school systems are stable and sustainable.

“It’s always the quality of the teacher and the teaching,” he said. “We will always attempt to have the most effective class sizes that we can afford and sustain.”

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