PHOENIX — Math teacher Cheryl Graham sang the quadratic equation to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel," then led her Phoenix High School geometry class in several sing-a-longs of the jingle Tuesday.
It's part of a strategy that helped 74 percent of the school's students who took the statewide Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, OAKS, math test last school year achieve passing scores, up from 47 percent in 2010. In 2012, 64 percent of test takers passed, while 62 percent did in 2011.
Test scores for all Oregon schools will be made public today, but Phoenix High Principal Jani Hale already has been sharing the results, eager to spread the word about a program that's working.
"You have to make sure you are engaged with your students," said Hale. "They have to embrace the tests as an opportunity to show where they are at this time."
Hale and Theresa Sayre, former director of instructional services and now the district superintendent, hired Graham two years ago to help rethink the way math was taught at the school. She previously had been successful at raising math scores in Rogue River and Phoenix's other math teachers bought into the changes, said Hale.
Math teaching is now aimed at achieving the state standard rather than working through a textbook as it's laid out, said Sayre.
"I developed some different plans when I got over to Phoenix," said Graham. "I said, 'Look, I've used these things in the past. They worked in Rogue River.' "
Students who need help passing the exam are targeted by teachers.
In her first year, Graham and other teachers moved all students who had passed the test into a unit on statistics so they could concentrate on building the skills of those who needed help.
The timing of the tests is critical, Graham says. Students, usually juniors, can take it up to three times between October and May. A first OAKS test is usually administered in December to assess students and target training.
After a second round in the spring, Phoenix teachers determine who is on the verge of meeting standards. Those students then go into a full-day workshop with games, activities, competitions — and sometimes even doughnuts — to prepare for the third round.
"They take the test the very next day," said Graham. "Fifty percent or better get (pass) OAKS."
Engaging students and making them aware of OAKS and graduation requirements is critical, administrators think.
"This is a potential OAKS question," Graham said after the musical quadratic equation and explaining its role.
Students supply answers as Graham works through graphing values on a grid.
"The problem is we get into doing mental math," she says as wrong answers are voiced. "When in doubt, write it out."
The teacher jokes with students and throws off quick quips.
"I'm just going to pick victims, pardon me, volunteers," Graham says. "We are preparing you with baby steps for when you get the mother of all problems."
On the wall of one class, Graham has a sinking Titanic with students represented anonymously as passengers. They can get into a lifeboat only by passing OAKS.
"They are pretty chapped that they have taken the test multiple times and they haven't been successful," said Graham. "We'll give them the material that they need. They are going to be successful. "
Graham and another teacher usually eat their lunches in classrooms so they can help students. As a result, she didn't know where the teachers' lounge was for a long time.
Passing the test is even more critical beginning this year for students who want to earn diplomas. They must either obtain a qualifying score or submit two work samples as math is added to two other essential skills, reading and writing, required for a diploma.
"Our focus this year is to find every single senior who needs to pass the OAKS or needs a work sample to graduate," said Graham. "We have a plan of attack for them."
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.