Commentary: Improving Oregon test scores


Last updated 10/22/2019 at Noon

A recent headline in The Bulletin and also in The Oregonian stated “Oregon schools record poorest test scores in five years.” If you are a parent this undoubtedly caught your eye. The article went on to share, “Oregon schools recorded their poorest performance in the five-year history of Oregon’s current reading, writing and math tests this spring, registering year-over-year declines in every grade level and among nearly every demographic group.”

The scores revealed that only 40 percent of students across grades three through eight have mastered math. A small percentage of over half the students tested show proficiency in reading and writing skills.

As I listened to reports and read these statistics I of course wondered how the Sisters’ students stack up.

According to The Oregonian, looking at grades three through 11, our students exceeded state percentages in all but three grades in math (4th, 5th, and 8th). In reading and writing, the percentages were above the state’s in all grades. As impressive as this is it’s important to recognize that in math the proficiency score of 52 was the highest achieved. In English skills it was much higher, especially in the 11th grade where it reached 80 percent. In a September 19 article in The Bulletin it was reported that of the students at Sisters High 85 percent chose to take the math tests while 87 percent took the reading and writing tests.

As great as it is to be above the state percentages it’s important to think about how many of Sisters’ students are still not proficient, especially in the lower grades.

It has often been said that up until third grade students are learning to read, from third grade on they are reading to learn.

If we take this literally we realize that a 52 percentage (our third-grade score) of proficiency shows there is work to be done.

This is an area where parents can make a huge impact, starting from almost the day their children are born.

Making opportunities to engage with words, in all kinds of situations, is the crucial item to focus on.

The more descriptive words kids hear, the more new words added to their vocabulary, and the more they feel their words are important, the better their English skills will become.

Books, games, cereal boxes, road signs and other printed words need to be in front of them as much as possible, instead of screens that engage but don’t teach the necessary foundation for reading.

Being listened to and heard makes a child feel important and helps them develop a better ability to communicate effectively.

As a toddler, one of my daughters would not go to bed without clutching one of her favorite books. We didn’t necessarily have to read it because she would read it to herself long after the lights went out. Memory of words is amazing.

Later in her school years she was tested to be admitted to a special education experience. In reading she tested far above her grade level, in math not so well. I’ll forever be grateful to the admittance director for saying, “Shelly will be able to do math well enough to balance her checkbook, however, she’ll be able to read whatever comes before her, which is much more important.” Her reading excelled in spite of learning difficulties. Today she is a school counselor where she feels having had problems learning prepared her to better understand her students. Her love of reading has gotten her to where she is today.

Overall, math scores also need some work. Here again parents can start that work. Every time a numbers game is played or computation questions are asked the idea of “I can’t do math” is quietly debunked. Recently, some Cub Scouts approached me to buy popcorn at Ray’s. Not needing the popcorn I told them I would give them a $5 donation and handed them a $10, asking how much change did they need to give me in return? This was a deliberate way I could be part of helping them learn that math is a practical tool to use in everyday life.

Colt Gill, Oregon’s state chief education administrator, said in the Oregonian article that districts will be given half a billion dollars to spend to try to raise achievement, improve mental and behavioral health, and close achievement gaps. I heard on Oregon Public Radio that this money will be coming through the Student Success Act. Distribution of that money does depend partially on data collected from students’ test scores.

I strongly believe that having money designated not only for academics but also earmarked to address mental health and the development of social emotional skills can do nothing but improve test scores. Hopefully, a large proportion of that money will go toward developing quality early childhood education, which research shows will pay for itself in the years to come.

Gill encouraged parents and taxpayers to reach out to their school district’s leaders with input on how they think their district could best spend this money. He said the data points and information about how students are currently doing inform the discussion along with the engagement of students and families in deciding what it tells them how the districts should proceed.

I hope many in the Sisters area will become involved in this process. I plan to.


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