North Albany resident Tom Cordier has been on a bit of a tear lately, addressing both the Greater Albany Public Schools Board of Trustees and the Linn County Board of Commissioners about what he sees as signs of big trouble in the area's public schools.
Both the commissioners and the school board, probably wisely, chose not to respond directly on this issue to Cordier, who is concerned about the performance of students on the 2016-17 round of Smarter Balanced tests for math and reading.
And, truthfully, those results could have been better: In the Albany district, only about 40 percent of students achieved passing marks on the math test. The numbers were lower in other Linn County school districts. Across the state, most numbers slid back just a bit when compared to the previous year.
Cordier told the commissioners this week that he feared that the poor performance on the tests possibly presaged a general dumbing-down of the area's workforce. That, he worried, could put a dent in the mid-valley's reputation as a place with an educated workforce.
Well, maybe. But these days, employers don't seem to be fretting as much about the education level of potential workers as they are about those new employees' work ethic or their ability to work well with others — not to mention whether they can pass a drug test. (The inability of many workers to pass that urine test has become a big deal for employers.)
And this question of how our schools are performing is a much more complicated issue than just focusing on how students performed on the Smarter Balanced tests. It's a mistake to put too much emphasis on any single measurement, such as this one. (It's worth remembering that these tests are considerably harder than the tests they replaced, the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge of Skills: Students have to show their work and explain their answers and can take the test only once.)
It also would be a mistake to focus too intently on local districts: A quick look at the statewide results on the math test last year shows that this is an issue for the entire state. (In fact, the Albany district was about in the middle of the pack when compared to other districts around the state.) So the issues Cordier is raising locally could be asked statewide as well.
But even taking all that into consideration, the fact is that Cordier has a point: Even taking the difficulty of the test and all the other factors into account, these numbers need to be higher. Although the comparison isn't entirely fair, he argues that a 60 percent failure rate would be unacceptable in other arenas: You wouldn't want to driving an automobile that didn't start 6 out of every 10 times you tried to turn it on. Why should we tolerate that rate of failure in our schools?
So we're interested in the answers to the question that Cordier asked the Albany school board: What's the plan to improve those results? But, again, the same question is an important one throughout the state: What's the plan to improve those results?
Part of the answer to that question might come as educators review the test results themselves, which offer the ability to pinpoint districts that have performed relatively well on the tests: Granted, many of those districts might be in wealthier areas of the state, but that's probably not the case for all of them. There must be some good ideas in those districts worth copying.
The issue is complicated, and Cordier isn't doing anybody a favor when he tries to make it too simple; there's a big role here for nuance. But the bottom line actually is fairly straightforward: These test results need to be better. How do we improve them? (mm)