GAPS outside

Greater Albany Public School has its district office at 718 Seventh Ave. S.W. 

Mark Ylen, Democrat-Herald (File)

Bottom line, says Superintendent Jim Golden: Greater Albany Public Schools isn't happy with the district's 60 percent failure rate on the most recent round of state math tests.

That said, Golden has a message for anyone else who's unhappy with those results: GAPS has prioritized different standards to measure success than the Smarter Balanced test, known for short as SBAC.

The district is building on several systems to improve the standards it has prioritized, which include graduation rates and successful post-graduate placements: jobs, trade schools, community colleges and four-year universities.

Those standards are on the rise. Last year, 86.4 percent of Albany freshmen were considered "on track" to graduate, up from 81.7 percent the year before, according to the most recent state report cards issued by the Oregon Department of Education.

The district's 2015-16 graduation rate, the most recent information available, was 86.9 percent, up from 80.9. The dropout rate that year was 1.7 percent. As of 2014-15, the most recent data, 63.3 percent of Albany students enrolled in a community college or four-year institution within 16 months of graduating.

Those are the standards Golden said he is working to increase. And, he said,  he believes as the district stays with the systems meant to boost those standards, SBAC scores will rise, too. 

In the meantime, he has no plans to tie state test scores to any form of sanction, such as holding students back if they don't pass. Nor does he intend to craft a specific plan that singles out just SBAC scores for improvement.

"The SBAC is an autopsy," he said. "It doesn't help the patient."

Golden made his remarks in response to concerns voiced at recent board meetings by Albany resident Tom Cordier and former state senator Mae Yih. Both have spoken during public comment time to point out the district's ongoing poor performance on state tests — dating back well before SBAC, Yih noted — and to ask the district to make public a plan with goals, targets and strategies to boost results.

Albany has established five "pillars" for what it considers "great public schools," Golden told Yih following her testimony Oct. 23. Developing plans for those pillars is a yearlong process, with "specific and measurable" actions for each. An update on the process is scheduled for the Nov. 20 board meeting.

The five pillars do not mention state test scores. Instead, they reference measures such as students graduating with good attendance, work habits and job and social skills; developing schools as places that help students overcome issues of poverty and race; and embracing a "growth mindset" that involves making decisions using data.

"What people need to know is, you've got to stay the course," Golden said. "We're building the ramp right now."

Oregon began using math and reading tests through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in spring 2015. The SBAC tests replaced the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which were known as OAKS. They are given at grades 3, 5, 8 and 11.

The Department of Education agreed to change tests after adopting the Common Core State Standards, a series of national standards in reading and math.

Educators say the old OAKS standards were set at roughly a 10th-grade level, while the SBAC tests measure college readiness. The newer tests take much longer to finish — an average of four to five hours each; which means teachers must give them over multiple days — and require students to explain their reasoning and show their work rather than fill in multiple-choice answers.

Students had up to three tries to pass an OAKS test. The SBAC is given just once.

Golden has long been a public critic of the SBAC. It's a good tool for state systems as a whole, he said, allowing the Oregon Department of Education to look at large-scale trends. But for individual students, Golden said, it takes too long, has no direct effect on diplomas or college entrance requirements and doesn't give any immediate, helpful feedback for improvement. 

And, Golden noted, the state allows families to opt out of taking the test in the first place. About 15 percent of Oregon's high school juniors chose not to take the test last year.

"For most kids, the SBAC doesn't matter, from their perspective," Golden said. 

Oregon's state educators appear to be coming to the same conclusion. In May, the state decided this year's juniors will be the last to take the SBAC tests, although it is still to be given to younger students. 

Instead, the state plans to replace it with a "nationally recognized assessment" for the 2018-19 school year. ODE is now working on what that test will be.

Golden said he believes the ACT College Readiness test is a better measurement of current skills and gives better, more immediate information on students' weak areas. As a step in that direction, Greater Albany has purchased the ACT "Inspire" test, a nationally-normed freshmen-level version of the ACT, for all freshmen to take this spring.  

In their board testimony, neither Yih nor Cordier said whether they think the SBAC is the best state assessment, but both stressed they believe the district needs to do more to make sure students meet the standards it measures.

"The principle of using standardized test scores to assess whether students have learned the subject has been agreed to — no excuses," Cordier said in an email to the Democrat-Herald following a meeting he had with Golden and Board Chairman Micah Smith. 

"Those targets should be established for all grades, all students and all teachers this year as a starting point," he wrote. "With no targets nothing can change. The meeting uncovered the sad fact that no targets exist."

In her testimony, Yih objected to not including "graduating with high academic achievement" to the district's "pillar" structure. She said she wanted to see Albany have a goal of 90 percent of students passing the state tests in reading and math in six years.

"It is essential that our schools hold to high standards and prepare today's students for tough global competition after they graduate," she said.

Golden said he agrees. He just doesn't believe the SBAC is the way to get there.

"I am not satisfied with our test scores," Golden told the Democrat-Herald. "I do however think that the Smarter Balanced Assessment is not the best instrument for us to use."

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