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Off-Balanced

While the state reported in July that students’ Smarter Balanced scores were higher than expected, that wasn’t the case for local school districts.

According to district- and school-level data released today, local school districts with the exception of Ashland consistently scored below state averages in English language arts and mathematics on the new state assessments. Results for those districts ranged from 27 percent to just over 50 percent of students meeting the standards that indicate they are on track to graduate and be college-ready.

Based on results from a 2014 field test, the Oregon Department of Education was expecting only 30 to 40 percent of students to meet the higher expectations. However, Oregon students exceeded these projections by about 10 percentage points, ODE reported.

The new assessment, offered this spring to third- through eighth-grade and 11th-grade students, is graded on scale of one to four. Students who score a three or four on the assessments are considered on track to graduate from high school and be college- and career-ready.

Results show that on the English language arts assessment only 51.6 percent of Medford students, 45.3 percent of Eagle Point students, 52.4 percent of Central Point students and 49.6 percent of Phoenix-Talent students scored a three or higher. On the math assessment, 37.2 percent of Medford students, 26.9 percent of Eagle Point students, 39.2 percent of Central Point students and 33.3 percent of Phoenix-Talent students scored a three or higher.

The state average of students scoring three or higher was 54.1 percent for English language arts and 40.8 percent for math.

Medford’s scores on the science assessment — which used the previous testing standard and not the Smarter Balanced test — were a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy report.

Only students in the fifth, eighth and 11th grades take the science assessment, but in all three grades, Medford students exceeded the state averages.

Despite the below-average overall results, Medford’s new Chief Academic Officer Michelle Zundel sang the praises of Hoover, Jacksonville, Lone Pine, Oak Grove, Abraham Lincoln and Ruch elementary schools, which exceeded the state averages on both the math and English language arts assessments.

Medford schools Superintendent Brian Shumate also noted that students’ English language arts scores gradually improved from the third to the sixth grade, at which point they exceeded the state average by 1.8 percentage points.

“We do have some victories,” he said. “We have pockets of very good work going on in our district, but when you compare students who are proficient and above, overall we are about 2.5 percentage points behind the state average in English language arts and 3.6 percentage points behind the state average in math.”

In the 11th grade, only 25.6 percent of Medford students scored a three or four in math, but this dip in the 11th grade is "commensurate with the dip in the state average (30.5 percent),” Shumate pointed out.

“The only way to fix this is by teachers collaborating, using data to make informed decisions and offering targeted interventions for the kids who aren’t demonstrating proficiency on state standards,” he said.

There are short- and long-term strategies to improving student achievement, Shumate said.

Quick fixes include making sure that what teachers are teaching is what’s being assessed, and helping younger students improve their computer skills so they can better navigate the online assessments. Long-term fixes include making sure the curriculum is consistent districtwide and that teachers are testing students in a way that shows which students are "getting it" and which aren't, he said.

“And all of that occurs under the umbrella of professional learning communities,” Shumate said. Professional learning communities (PLCs) are groups of teachers who come together to compare and develop best practices.

When the state began implementing the former assessments, called the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, about 15 years ago, there also was a dip in the number of students who met state targets, but over time, teachers learned how to better prepare students, students and families became more comfortable with the test and, as a result, student achievement improved, Zundel said.

“With the increased rigor of these new academic standards, we’ve raised the bar for students, and we realize that it will take a while for that to kick in,” she said.

Like Medford administrators, Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Teresa Sayre celebrated her district’s successes. On the math assessment, Phoenix High School juniors exceeded the state average by about 10 percentage points.

“We have already engaged in talks with those PLCs to see what worked and what strategies they can share with others,” she said.

However, Sayre said, she felt that the test was very difficult for students, to the point of being biased, particularly for students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students.

“There’s a heavy emphasis on computer application and being able to synthesize information and utilize the computer as a tool to formulate written responses,” she said.

Sayre said students at the middle school level also experienced some test fatigue, so the district will try to schedule it better in the coming year.

“We were learning about the test, and every test comes with its own strategies,” she said. “For the district as whole, we place less stock in state scores and more on specific outcomes at the high school level ... ."

The simplest way to improve scores is to spend more time doing test preparation, said Central Point Superintendent Samantha Steele.

“But history tells us the test will change, and it’s a very poor use of instructional time,” she said. “I’ve never talked to a parent who said, ‘I wish you’d spent more time doing test prep.’

"These scores are a reflection of the schools, not the kids,” Steele said.

Individual district and school data will be available after 9 a.m. today at http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?=5387.

Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or by email at tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

Smarter Balanced Results by Mail Tribune

North Medford High School juniors Elora Ormand and Dhruv Aneja prepare for the following day's lab in Mark Geisslinger's biology class. Science was a bright spot in Medford's overall assessment scores. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell