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Difficulty factor skews student scores

Susan Castillo, state education superintendent, needs to look up the definition of rigor--and then explain to Oregon parents why she wants schools to treat children that way. Instead of examining the data, how about examining the tests? How about interviewing children about why they choose the answers they choose--in the meticulous method employed by Clifford Hill and Eric Larsen in Children and Reading Tests.

A Portland kindergarten teachers wonders why the reporters just parrot back the party line--without offering any questions, rebuttals, or appeals to sanity.

Scott Learn and Maya Blackmun

Oregon's student achievement tests may send false signals that elementary school students are on track but the academic wheels fall off in middle school.

That's because the state's tests are relatively easy for elementary students to pass, experts say and national studies suggest, but relatively difficult for middle schoolers.

The disparity has some big consequences.

For one, meeting standards in elementary school may be an unreliable milepost for students and parents, indicating that students are prepared to meet them in middle school.

The problem for middle schools: Federal No Child Left Behind ratings are pegged primarily to the state tests. That's why more than 100 Oregon middle schools were rated federal "troubled schools" last week. Only 1 percent of Oregon's elementary schools made the list.

Nikki Squire, a state school board member and former Hillsboro superintendent, acknowledges middle schools and their students have unique challenges.

"But I am not one who believes students suddenly fall off the edge of the Earth when they go to middle school," Squire said. "I don't buy that."

Today, the 2005-06 state assessment results come out. If they follow form, they'll tell a familiar story: Elementary schools do a great job, while performance plummets in middle school.

More than 80 percent of Oregon's third- and fifth-graders met state standards in reading and math in 2004-05. As in years past, the results dropped to the mid to low 60th percentile in eighth grade.

That decline seems to make sense, squaring with many grown-up's often less-than-tender memories of middle school.

But nationwide tests tell a different tale.

In reading, Oregon's eighth-graders outperformed both Oregon's fourth-graders and the U.S. eighth-grade average on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide test given to fourth- and eighth-graders. Fourth-graders matched the national average.

Eighth-grade performance slipped in math, but not as much as in the rest of the nation. Oregon's fourth-graders ranked 27th highest in math on the 2005 NAEP. Eighth-graders ranked 17th.

This fall, teams of K-12 educators and outside reviewers hired by the Oregon Department of Education will study the state's scores as part of the first wholesale review of the testing system since it began in 1996.

"Need to raise the rigor"

Susan Castillo, state education superintendent, stopped short of saying the elementary standards need to be raised. More number-crunching needs to happen, she said.

But "we know we need to raise the rigor in some areas," Castillo said. "We want standards set at the right level to get students ready to be more successful in middle school and high school."

Research suggests Oregon's elementary school tests, particularly in reading, are the least rigorous.

G. Gage Kingsbury, research director for the Northwest Evaluation Association in Lake Oswego, studied state tests in 2003, finding significant disparities in Oregon's reading tests.

A student passing the state's third-grade test would rank near the bottom third of students nationally, the researchers estimated. A student passing the eighth-grade reading test would rank in the 58th percentile, nearer the top third.

Standardized tests have limits, Kingsbury said, and "there are a lot of different pathways to becoming a proficient adult." But the danger of relatively easy tests at the elementary level, he said, is that parents and schools can miss students who need extra help to succeed down the road.

The study concluded that as much as a quarter of third-grade students identified as meeting Oregon's standards might not meet the eighth-grade standard, "even if they showed normal growth."

As principal of K-8 Sublimity Middle School southeast of Salem, Andy Gardner has seen that pattern play out. The bottom line, he says: "Kids have to exceed (the state standard) in third grade, if they are to have any chance of meeting it in fifth or eighth."

Intentional disparities

Oregon's disparity in testing rigor was intentional, though its side effects were not.

It came about when the state first set passing scores on the tests in the mid-1990s, said Steve Slater, an assessment manager with the state. Different groups set standards for elementary, middle and high schools.

In general, Slater said, the elementary panel worried about applying standardized tests to young students, who vary dramatically in how fast they pick up basic concepts. The debate included questions about whether it's even appropriate to give primary students high-pressure, publicly reported tests.

Oregon's elementary panel "tended toward the lenient side," Slater said. And the entire test-scoring group "was comfortable with having a greater degree of rigor at the secondary level."

Nationally, states tend to give relatively easy tests in elementary grades, Kingsbury said. His study put Oregon's elementary tests in the middle of the pack in difficulty among as many as a dozen states. Middle and high school tests ranked high in difficulty for reading and about average in math.

Research by The Education Trust, a national group trying to boost student achievement, compared NAEP scores to state test scores.

By the group's yardstick, Oregon's elementary math and reading tests are both relatively easy compared with other states. Oregon's middle school tests are more difficult. The NAEP does not test enough high school students to compare state by state.

The tests disparity is fairly common knowledge in education circles. But secondary school teachers are loathe to complain -- it sounds too whiney. And they concede that middle and high school students need to do much better.

Rob Saxton, superintendent of the Tigard-Tualatin School District, explains the ratcheting up of benchmarks to Rotary clubs and parent groups. The question he gets all too often, he says: "What's wrong with the middle school?"

Saxton, a high school math teacher when Oregon's standards were developed, says he has no opinion on where the passing marks should be set and no intention of running down elementary school teachers. But he doesn't want middle and high school teachers discouraged by a false reading of the tests.

"We need to properly understand the data," he said, "and come to grips with it."

Scott Learn: 503-294-7657; scottlearn@news.oregonian.com Maya Blackmun: 503-294-5926; mayablackmun@news.oregonian.com

— Scott Learn and Maya Blackmun
The Oregonian


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