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Math scores drop, but rules changed

Far fewer elementary and middle school students in Jackson County passed the math portion of the state's standardized test last academic year, but many districts saw an increase in reading, writing and science scores, according to results released today.

The drop in the math passing rate is largely because the Oregon Department of Education upped benchmarks — not because student performance decreased, said Debbie Connolly, Medford School District's supervisor of curriculum and assessment. "They changed the playing field in math — that's really the reason for the drop in math scores," she said. "At some grade levels, students are now tested on math that used to be a year-and-a-half ahead of them."

Districts statewide saw similar results in math passing rates, Oregon State Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo said in a release. Statewide, 63 percent of students passed the math test in the 2010-11 academic year, compared with 74 percent the previous year. "When you increase the rigor, the percent of students meeting standard generally goes down, and we are seeing that in this year's results," she said. "Not all students will get over this higher bar the first year. But today's results clearly indicate that our students are on the right track."

The state changed the way it scores the math test for grades three through eight, requiring students to get more answers right to pass.

As a result, more students in third through eighth grades failed the math test in all county districts, with a few exceptions. Phoenix-Talent School District saw more eighth grade students passed the math test and the tiny Prospect School District had similarly good results with its third grade students.

Beyond that, all districts saw elementary and middle school math scores slip by double-digit percentage points, in most cases. In the Ashland School District, for example, only 72 percent of third grade students passed the 2010-11 test, compared with 90 percent the previous year.

The scores for other grade levels and districts show similar declines.

The decline in math passing rates was foreshadowed earlier this month when the state released of the list of districts and schools that had failed to meet adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The federal law uses the state's testing data to calculate whether schools are on track and penalizes those that aren't.

Today's release includes the specific testing data broken down by grade level, subject area and school. It also shows the percentage of students at each school who passed the test, compared to the previous year — numbers that state officials, district administrators and teachers will use in the coming year to tailor instruction.

The good news is that a number of districts saw marked improvement in reading, writing and science scores. High school math scores also increased or held steady across the board in Jackson County.

The reading and math tests are given to students from third grade on. Students in fourth and seventh grades and in high school took the writing test last year. Those in fifth and eighth grades and in high school took the science test.

Ashland School District saw writing scores increase for seventh grade and high school, but they fell for fourth grade. Reading scores were mixed, depending on grade level. Science scores were higher for fifth grade and high school, but slightly lower for eighth grade.

"I'm concerned overall about our writing scores," Ashland Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said. "The fact that we have fairly high scores in reading and math and middle of road scores in writing has led me to really want to hone in on writing instruction next year."

Central Point School District had the distinction of raising test scores for all grade levels in writing and science. Additionally, reading scores were up for all grades, except fourth.

"We feel good about these scores," said Samantha Steele, Central Point's director of education. "Science has always been one of our strong points and we've refocused on writing, so these are scores we had hoped to see."

In Medford School District, writing scores were up for all grade levels and science scores increased for all grades except fifth. Reading scores were mixed, depending on grade level.

"Writing has been a district focus since the beginning of last year because our scores were needing some work, so the increase in the scores reflects the district-wide focus and that will continue this year," Connolly said.

Phoenix-Talent School District saw writing scores increase for fourth grade and high school, but they fell for seventh grade. Reading scores were up across the board except for third grade. Science scores increased for eighth grade and high school, but were down for fifth grade.

"For us this is really good information to help in our school improvement process," said Teresa Sayre, Phoenix-Talent's director of instructional services. "We'll analyze it and look at some of the factors that caused us not to make gains."

Eagle Point School District saw the largest improvement of any district in the county, with writing, reading and science scores boasting gains at every grade level.

"In most cases we exceeded the state average so I was really excited to see that," said Tina Mondale, Eagle Point's director of school improvement. "We're finally starting to see some really good outcomes for kids."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email hguzik@mailtribune.com.