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Diploma hinges on reading skills, comprehension

Passing grades, 24 credits and a senior project have all been on the checklist to earn a high school diploma from Medford public schools. But next fall's juniors will have to add "pass the state test in reading" to that list, per a new state requirement.

That may send a shiver down the spine of prospective graduates who fear freezing up in the midst of a standardized test. But educators, recognizing that even qualified students can have problems testing, have provided another option to show reading proficiency — by doing work samples.

Instead of reading a passage and answering multiple-choice questions on a standardized test, students will be allowed to answer open-ended questions about a text that allows him or her to show understanding, appropriate interpretation and analysis.

School districts around the state are in the process of training staff how to lead students in creating work samples to show that proficiency. Medford has expanded that training to middle-school teachers, with the idea of laying the foundation for work students will have to do in high school and eventually college.

"When we are asking questions and asking students to read certain texts, we are hitting certain state standards," said Tonya Noon-Toledo, an instructional coach at North Medford High School, who has been helping to train middle-school and high-school teachers how to do the work samples. "Work samples are one way of checking and seeing if students have mastered the standard."

For example, a social studies teacher might give students an editorial from a historical newspaper against the forced relocation of American Indians, said Koeby Johnson, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Medford's Hedrick Middle School, who received the training earlier this week.

"As they're reading, they're answering questions and making comments in the margins," Johnson said. "Some of the questions are about comprehension and basic facts, or there might analysis. What can you tell about people at the time? Were they racist, prejudiced? Did they think it was fine to force them to relocate? Then I am asking them to read between the lines. Why was this written? Was the writer ahead of his time in terms of human rights?"

What the students write or don't write reveals their ability to comprehend, interpret, infer and analyze, said Jamie Leach, a Medford instructional coach. The results are useful pieces of information for a middle-school teacher to know how well they're doing their job, but the exercise also is good practice to prepare for high school when a small number of students who can't make peace with standardized tests will have to prove their skills with similar work samples, Leach said.

The new requirement doesn't end at reading. In 2013, students will have to show proficiency in writing to graduate, and in 2014, that requirement will extend to math.

In all cases, students will take the state assessment and be expected to pass it. But those who don't will be allowed to show their proficiency by scoring well on another type of standardized test, such as the ACT, or as a last resort, doing work samples, Noon-Toledo said.

The Oregon Department of Education doesn't require school districts to show the work samples to state officials, but the state does provide some guidance on how to create the samples and how to score them.

For example, a reading work sample should include two texts of 1,000 to 2,000 words each. At least one should be informative rather than literary. To show proficiency, students should respond to at least five to eight questions or prompts.

"The intent of the work samples is that they are another means of meeting the graduation requirements, but they should be of an equal rigor to the state test," said ODE spokesperson Crystal Greene.

"ODE will keep an eye on districts' use of work samples, and if students who scored extremely low on the state test are passing the reading working samples, ODE will investigate and provide the district with additional assistance, training or interventions to ensure that the rigor is maintained."

Amy Drury, a teacher at Central Medford High School, an alternative campus, said it's a relief that the state provides more than one way for students to prove their proficiency.

"We have diverse students at Central who need to learn and be assessed in diverse ways," Drury said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.