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Tests show Oregon students’ proficiency in core subjects declined during Covid

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Tests show Oregon students’ proficiency in core subjects declined during Covid

Sep 22, 2022 | 9:00 am ET
By Alex Baumhardt
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Tests show Oregon students’ proficiency in core subjects declined during Covid
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Julie Cleave is a reading specialist at Hallman Elementary School in Salem. (Fred Joe/Salem Reporter)

The latest results from statewide assessment tests in math, English and science show students across Oregon lost ground during the pandemic.

Though participation was lower than in years past, an average of 85% of students participated this year in the assessment tests, called Smarter Balanced tests, which are required by state and federal law unless a parent files for an exemption. On average across the seven grades tested, student proficiency declined nearly 10% in English language arts and about 9% in math from pre-pandemic levels.

Overall proficiency in English language arts, which includes reading, writing, speaking, listening and viewing, went from just over 50% in 2019 to about 44% in the spring of 2022. The assessments are given to grades 3 through 8 and 11th grade students.

Of the state’s 197 school districts, 111 tested below the state average in English, and 124 tested below the state average for math proficiency. Oregon’s declines reflect a nationwide trend showing student learning was negatively affected by the pandemic, which included months of online classes. 

At a news conference Tuesday, Dan Farley, research and accountability administrator at the Oregon Department of Education, said the state expects students to recover. 

The results mark the first statewide assessment of the impact of the pandemic on student learning. The results are in line with a nationwide trend of a decline in core subject knowledge. In the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “nation’s report card,” proficiency in math of American students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade fell for the first time since results were published in 1973. Those results also showed the largest decline in reading proficiency nationwide since 1990. Oregon’s results for math and reading proficiency from the national assessment will be published Oct. 24. 

We don’t even tell kids to focus on it or worry about it. We don't spend any time on test prep; we don’t rearrange our schedules.

– Heidi Sipe, Umatilla School District superintendent

Declines in Oregon were most substantial among middle schoolers.

In 2019, about 53% of Oregon middle schoolers showed proficiency in English language arts and about 38% were proficient in math. This spring, about 43% of middle schoolers showed proficiency in English language arts and less than one-third were proficient in math. 

By student group, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students lost the most ground in English and math. Students with learning disabilities continue to have the lowest proficiency in all core subjects, with less than 20% showing proficiency in English, math and science.

Both small and large districts had low scores. Salem-Keizer, Oregon’s second largest school district, had some of the highest test participation rates along with scores below the state average in all three core subjects, including an average proficiency across all grades of just 21% in math, 24% in science and 33% in English. 

In Umatilla, a rural district in northeast Oregon, just 11% of students showed proficiency in science, about 20% in English and about 21% in math.

Superintendent Heidi Sipe said the district is more concerned about results on a state assessment test given three times a year that tests proficiency in math and reading. The test, MAP, adjusts to each student, with the computer changing the difficulty of the next question based on a student’s response. The test tracks student progress throughout the year. Smarter Balanced tests show proficiency at the end of the year, after a student has finished the grade level being tested.

“We don’t even tell kids to focus on it or worry about it,” she said of the Smarter Balanced tests. “We don’t spend any time on test prep; we don’t rearrange our schedules.”

She said students in Umatilla perform far better on the MAP tests than on other assessments the state uses. 

The state’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, said it will comment on state assessment scores Thursday afternoon.

A ‘high standard’

Oregon students in grades 3 through 8 and 11th grade are required by state and federal law to take online assessment tests in English language arts and math. In grades 5, 8 and 11 students have to take additional tests in science. Oregon uses the Smarter Balanced tests for these assessments.

The results help the state Legislature and the state education department make decisions about resource allocation and educational priorities. 

Farley said the tests set a high bar. 

“That proficiency mark was established to demonstrate whether students were on track to be college and career ready by the time they graduate from grade 11. So it’s a very high standard and high expectation to meet,” Farley said.

States are required to report participation and performance on these tests to the U.S. Department of Education. 

That proficiency mark was established to demonstrate whether students were on track to be college and career ready by the time they graduate from grade 11. So it's a very high standard and high expectation to meet.

– Dan Farley, research and accountability administrator at the Oregon Department of Education

The state education department said in a news release that the latest results “underscore the need for continued investment from the Student Success Act, the High School Success program, and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, continued support for mental health and wellbeing, as well as accelerated academic learning.”

The Student Success Act, passed in 2019, provides $2.35 billion to schools every two years to address student mental and behavioral health, class sizes and academic disparities among students. The High School Success program, established in 2016 provides $350 million every two years to high schools for programs that help boost graduation rates. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund is the state’s $1.7 billion allocation of federal funds to help schools bounce back from the pandemic. 

The results of the assessment tests will not be used to evaluate how effective teachers are, Farley said.

“We are discouraging the use of state summative assessment results in setting goals for educators,” he said. “It’s not feasible to isolate the impact of an instructor or a single educator on learning in our school systems.” 

Participation rates

During the spring of 2019, about 95% of eligible Oregon students took the Smarter Balanced tests. 

But in the spring of 2020, federal authorities waived the assessments due to school closures and distance learning. 

In 2021, when most students in Oregon were back in school, the federal education department approved Oregon’s request to scale back testing for another year.

Oregon’s participation rates are among the most inconsistent in the nation, Farley said, because Oregon allows parents to opt their children out of testing.

This year, participation rates among Oregon 11th graders were too low to allow for comparisons across schools, districts and time, Farley said. 

Participation by the state’s 11th graders was lower than that of all other grades, at about 60% for the English language arts assessment and 56% participation on the math assessment. When 11th grade was removed, average participation rates among the other grades was around 90% for the English and language arts assessment and the math assessment.