Oregon educators worry about signs of a resurgent achievement gap
Part of a series on rural education under the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic is widening achievement gaps for Oregon students of color, including those who attend rural schools.
In some Oregon schools only half of Latino students were attending on a regular basis at the start of the school year and students of color were failing high school classes at twice the rate of their white classmates, according to records obtained by Pamplin Media Group from several Oregon districts, including urban, suburban and rural schools.
Oregon educators, like their peers across the country, are facing unprecedented complications as most students and teachers adapt to distance learning. One of the challenges is a lack of readily available data on how they're doing.
Oregon districts are tracking students in a couple of ways: attendance and pass/fail rates. Pass/fail rates are available only through districts. Quarterly attendance is being passed on to the Oregon Department of Education, but the state agency is not sharing it with districts — or the public — making it hard for educators, parents and policymakers to gauge how the school year is going.
So, over the past two months, Pamplin Media Group has contacted a dozen school districts, from rural Jefferson County to Portland and its suburbs to see how their students are doing.
We found that distance learning has posed significant challenges for all students, but particularly students in rural areas, where connectivity is an issue, and students of color who, with the exception of Asian students, were attending less regularly than white students at the start of the school year.
But we also found that the "education gap" for students of color is smaller at rural districts, where teachers and administrators are finding creative ways to engage students — from increased home visits in Banks and Estacada to night classes in Gervais and bongo sessions in Madras.
This is part of a series on rural education during the pandemic:
What does 'attendance' look like in 2020
Last spring, when the coronavirus hit Oregon, the state ordered schools to close, moving all students to remote learning. Schools stopped taking attendance and recorded grades only on a pass/fail basis. This year, most students started school from home again, and most will remain in the distance learning model until at least February. To date, only a few rural school districts have allowed students back in the classroom.
Unlike last year, students are being graded this year and attendance is being taken, but not in a traditional way.
In accordance with Oregon's Ready Schools, Safe Learners state guidelines for education amid a pandemic, students need only log on to a remote class, email or send a text message to their teacher once within a 24-hour period to receive credit for attending that day. The guidelines allow flexibility for students who may struggle to log into a class at the same time each day due to poor internet access or scheduling challenges.
Oregon's definition of attendance during the pandemic could be "deceiving," according to Alejandro Carrero-Ramos, a dual-language social studies teacher at South Meadows Middle School in Hillsboro, a suburb west of Portland.
"Let's say that a student logs in and they leave their computer on for the duration of their class," Carrero-Ramos said. "In theory, and according to the program, they will be present for the entire class from beginning to end. Well, was that student really engaging? It's kind of a gray area, and that's why during the class we implement multiple activities."
At the state level, the Oregon Department of Education collects attendance data from districts four times a year, but ODE administrators say the data is used only to determine how to allocate federal funding dollars to school districts, based on their student populations, and generate annual reports such as graduation and dropout rates.
Despite statewide initiatives like Every Day Matters, which emphasizes the importance of attending school every day for optimal outcomes, the data submitted to the state is not analyzed or shared publicly. As a result, attendance data is tracked only at the district level.
Similarly, the state education agency doesn't ask for periodic grade reports, instead relying on annual assessments to determine student achievement and success in Oregon. That means it's up to districts to address any problems in achievement without the benefit of statewide analysis. And it makes it difficult to identify statewide patterns, like the achievement gap for students of color that is evident from the records obtained by Pamplin Media Group.
Jennifer Patterson is assistant superintendent with ODE's Office of Teaching, Learning and Assessment. Patterson said Oregon's education gaps aren't new or unique.
"What we're finding and discovering both locally and nationally is this is not an Oregon issue," Patterson said. "There is a larger conversation around how are our children faring and how do we know that? What are the indicators we can count on? When letter grades are being used and if students are not passing, what does that tell us about how do we, as educators, think differently and approach our practice in new ways … and how also do we use it as an indicator of what students might need that they don't have?"
Getting timely data is difficult
The remote learning format has thrust incredible challenges upon students, families and teachers.
A recent report published by the Education Writers Association documented the achievement gap issue. The solutions, EWA suggests, include: "continued federal and state funding to school districts impacted by the pandemic, transparency in data reporting to most effectively target resources to those most in need, and equitable access to high-quality math teaching and learning."
But getting an accurate, timely view of student engagement can be difficult. While several local school districts readily provided copies of their first-quarter attendance data when asked by reporters, the state agency pushed back when asked for the attendance data it has collected.
An agency spokesperson said the first-quarter data still needs to be validated by districts and would not be made publicly available until February, more than halfway through the school year. More than a month after a records request, the agency provided the data, but rejected a request for a fee waiver. Pamplin Media Group paid $200 to obtain the attendance records of 12 districts, which it will be analyzing over the next few weeks, along with grading data providing by individual districts (See sidebar).
The lack of comparative data from the state makes it hard for the public to get the full grasp of the situation. In a Dec. 17 conference call with Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, superintendents from rural and metropolitan districts shared their struggles with COVID-19 impacts on their ability to provide quality education.
In Clatskanie, a rural city along the Columbia River on the Oregon-Washington border, Superintendent Cathy Hurowitz told Bonamici that 136 students in the Clatskanie School District have dropped out since the pandemic hit. That represents nearly a fifth of the students enrolled a year ago.
Hurowitz said some have moved or have opted to attend school in Washington state, while others say they've opted for home school or online academies.
"We have about 56 at the community middle and high school that we know are just not engaged," Hurowitz told the federal lawmaker during a pre-Christmas Zoom meeting. "Our hope is to get our students and staff back in the building safely."
Even then, however, the challenges will remain.
Hurowitz believes many of the 136 students who disengaged eventually will return to the district when in-person learning resumes, but most will be behind their peers, leaving her staff to address a wide education gap.
Doing so will be a challenge for the rural Oregon district. Hurowitz said Clatskanie has enough extra building space, but lacks funds to hire extra staff needed to facilitate additional small classes.
Limited data show signs of disparities in Oregon
In Oregon, few academic benchmarks are being kept at the state level, and even fewer being shared. But preliminary data that is available, which has yet to be validated, indicates that many students are regularly missing classes, particularly at the upper grades and that many high schoolers are failing at least one class.
What's more, the gaps in attendance and achievement seem to be greater among students of color.
Even with the state's loose definition of what it means to attend a class, students of color are missing class at a higher rate than their white peers, according to records obtained by Pamplin Media Group from the Oregon Department of Education. Records from 12 districts, ranging from the state's largest to four rural districts, show that during the first month of the academic year:
• Attendance for American Indian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students lags behind the rate of white students by 7 percentage points.
• Black students have an attendance gap of 5 points
• Latino students have a gap of 4 points
• Asian students are attending at a slightly higher rate than white students
• The attendance gaps for students of color in the three rural Oregon districts sampled were half that of what's seen in urban and suburban districts.
• Attendance dropped off at higher grades. For example, attendance dropped from 97% at fourth grade to 95% at eighth grade and 91% among high school seniors. That pattern was consistent among urban, suburban and rural districts.
Although the state is not collecting grades from districts, high schools are tracking the number of students passing/failing classes. Some districts provided those records to Pamplin Media Group. Based on our reporting, districts appear to be using slightly different measurements, making comparisons between districts difficult.
In Portland Public Schools — Oregon's largest school district — the proportion of high school students failing at least one class is up from the 2019-20 school year.
Recently collected data shows students of color in PPS are failing at two and three times the rate of their white peers.
Similarly, in the large suburban Hillsboro School District the percentage of all students failing half or more of their classes during the first quarter of 2020-21 is double what it was the prior year, and the failure rate for Latino students is twice the rate of their white peers.
That pattern holds at some rural schools as well.
At Banks High School, in western Washington County, the number of students failing at least one class during the first moth of school jumped more than 25% this year. And, while Latino students make up just 7% of rural school's student body, they represent 30% of the students who are failing classes.
In rural Gervais, a Willamette Valley farming community where more than half the students are Latino, the failure rate has jumped, according to school officials.
The stark gaps in achievement across different student demographics aren't new, but they may have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think we're seeing what we saw in brick and mortar exacerbated," said Amber Fields, director of secondary education, career and college at Tigard-Tualatin School District, a suburban district southwest of Portland. "The root causes are vast and we're still trying to unpack those. It seems to be very polar. Either you're able to engage and we're able to help you navigate, or you're not able to engage and we can't help."
Kristyn Westphal, an area senior director in PPS's Office of School Performance, said keeping students engaged in school requires a nuanced approach.
Westphal said school psychologists meet and look at attendance data to assess which students need extra support.
"They look at where do we have gaps, who have we not heard from in a long time? Who's showing up for class but not completing assignments?" Westphal said. "They're considering a lot of things. A lot of kids have anxiety or depression. Some families are really overloaded and it's just too much to keep it straight in terms of the schedule. Some are dealing with loss and grief, so staff are really trying to problem-solve on an individual level."
This article is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans -- Rural Schools Grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. You can read all the Oregon stories in the series at Underscore.news.
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