Commencement diplomas

Tillamook High School diplomas at the 2019 graduation ceremony.

Recently released numbers showed the statewide graduation rate for the class of 2018-2019 was 80 percent, the highest on record for Oregon. At 88 percent average, Tillamook County topped those who outperformed the state, along with Clatsop, Columbia and Washington counties.

Test scores released this past fall showed school performance on reading, writing and math in Oregon. The scores showed just 39 percent of students in grades three through eight are succeeding with math and 53 percent could read and write to expectations.

The state scores are the worst seen since the Smarter Balanced exams were adopted five years ago, with declines in every grade level and most demographic groups. Statewide scores were reportedly affected by large numbers of high school students who did not participate, leaving some question about the reliability of the test results.

Middle school test scores in the state were notably low, with low-income and white students declining the most. Third and fourth graders had the smallest yearly declines.

The Smarter Balanced exams measure college and career readiness. College professors, teachers, curriculum experts and employers were consulted in creating the tests with a focus on the skills needed to succeed in higher education and the workforce.

The tests were designed to measure whether students have the skills they need to be on track for college and careers. The state uses them to judge school performance. They were vetted by college professors, teachers, curriculum experts and employers, who said they focus on the skills that U.S. students need to be successful in higher education and the workplace.

A review of test scores in Tillamook, Neah-Kah-Nie and Nestucca school districts shows similarities and differences with the state results.

Tillamook School District

As a district, Tillamook was five points below the state on math with 34 percent of students demonstrating proficiency. Tillamook was also below state on English by four points, with 49 percent proficiency. There are more than 2,100 students enrolled in the district with 45 percent on free or reduced-price lunch. The graduation rate is 86.6 percent.

District highlights included eighth grade math (2 percent above state), sixth grade English (4 percent above state) and sixth grade math (2 percent above state). Test scores revealed significant room for improvement in third grade English (13 percent below state), third grade math (13 percent below state) and fifth grade math (9 percent below state).

High school (11th grade) test scores were down 3 percent in English but were up nearly eight percent on math from 2018. Seventh grade scores down 10 percent in English and 14 percent in math, but eighth graders were up 8 percent on English and 11 percent on math.

East Elementary showed significant increases for test scores in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, with tiny slips in fourth grade English and fifth grade math from 2018. Sixth grade math was up 14 percent and sixth grade English were up nearly 10 percent. South Prairie Elementary third grade test scores dropped 9 percent in English and 3 percent in math.

Curt Shelley was recently hired as superintendent of Tillamook schools. He said in some areas Tillamook outperforms the state, but there are also areas to improve on. He also noted that due to a change in testing formats, scores have been lower than under the previous format.

“We have some work to do in some areas,” Shelley said. “And yet, I’m proud of us in certain areas.”

Shelley said in looking at data, one should consider factors that could influence results such as testing conditions, student well-being, individual class performances, instructors and curriculum, or a combination of factors. He emphasized that the state tests were one measurement of student performance, not a fully-informed picture of a school district.

“I think we do a lot of things really well that wouldn’t show up here,” Shelley said. “Trauma-informed care, building relationships, teaching kids how to be prepared after high school for college careers or the workforce.”

One group struggling in Tillamook schools is white males in poverty. But Tillamook is outperforming state graduation rates for Latinos, who make up a third of the district. Tillamook Schools have intentionally concentrated on serving Latinx, special education, economically challenged, homeless and other student groups, Shelley said. He noted that the road to meeting graduation standards is much tougher now than in the past. He encouraged those who question the proficiency rates to attempt some of the tests and see how they perform.

“When I went school, we didn’t do algebra until high school,” Shelley said. “We’re doing algebra in third and fourth grade now … it’s more challenging.”

Tillamook added Smarter Balance interim assessments, similar to practice tests, this past year. Shelley is also excited about the ninth grade on-track program in the district, which is focused on engaging students, improving attendance and reducing behavioral discipline. And he feels good about the work being done at the middle school with providing access and opportunities for students.

Shelley expressed concerns over the shortness of Oregon’s school year, which is among the shortest nationwide. He hopes the recent legislation for education funding will yield more “seat time” for students. There is a significant cost attached to every day added to the calendar, however, and there is an open discussion on what the right number of school days in a year should be, both for students and for staff. There are also plans for spending on mental health, attendance, and curriculum changes.

Neah-Kah-Nie School District

Paul Erlebach, Neah-Kah-Nie School District superintendent, said he would like to see more consistency across all schools to meet or exceed state average test scores. The district have some definite highlights, but also some major deficiencies. The district is home to Neah-Kah-Nie High School, Neah-Kah-Nie Middle School, Garibaldi Elementary School, Nehalem Elementary School, and Neah-Kah-Nie Pre-School.

As a district, Neah-Kah-Nie matched the state on math with 39 percent of students demonstrating proficiency and was a point above the state on English Language Arts (reading/writing), with 54 percent of students being proficient. At testing time, there were 775 students enrolled in the district with 49.65 percent on free or reduced-price lunch. The graduation rate is 92 percent.

Erlebach noted highlights such as seventh grade math (13 percent above state), seventh grade English Language Arts (9 percent above state) and fourth grade English Language Arts (13 percent above state), but also acknowledged areas of improvement such as third grade math (14 percent below state), fifth grade math (19 percent below state) and third grade English Language Arts (7 percent below state).

High school (11th grade) test scores were just slightly down from 2018. Middle school (sixth, seventh and eighth grade) scores down except for seventh English and math, with a significant dip in sixth and eighth grade English Language Arts.

At the elementary level, Nehalem was down except in fourth grade English Language Arts and math as well as fifth grade English Language Arts, with large declines in third grade English Language Arts and math, while Garibaldi was down third grade English Language Arts and math as well as fifth grade math but showed big gains in fourth grade English Language Arts and math.

Scores can be influenced by a number of factors outside of academic performance such as curriculum changes or time invested on subject. For example, Erlebach mentioned a case of a testing impropriety – a math poster left on a wall during an exam – that led to 15 tests being eliminated from overall results. He said this was unfortunate, but mistakes happen. Erlebach said testing improprieties are uncommon, estimating three incidents in the district this past year.

Neah-Kah-Nie schools are on a path to not only improve student test scores, but to improve student health and safety and to provide an overall well-rounded education. The district is aligning individual school improvement plans with school board, administrative, and teacher goals as well as the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan and Student Investment Account (SIA) goals.

District staff and community members targeted five goals: improving third grade reading, student attendance, ninth grade on-track, graduation and completion rates, and student well-being.

Strategies to achieve these goals include adopting a new elementary writing curriculum, implementing Smarter Balanced interim assessments, increasing parent engagement, adding secondary school counselors, a needs assessment for a school-based health center, meeting state physical education requirements for all students, researching and implementing best practices for early childhood education, increasing student electives and afterschool opportunities among other ideas.

Erlebach said the school district was highly appreciative of the Student Success Act (SSA), a $1 billion investment in Oregon schools aiming to reduce academic disparities, improve mental and behavioral health services, provide access to academic courses, increase staff collaboration opportunities, and build partnerships.

The SSA has dual aims of meeting student mental health and behavioral needs while increasing academic success for those who face barriers such as students of color, those with disabilities, emerging bilingual students, and those experiencing poverty, homelessness and foster care as well as other students who face disparities in schools.

Erlebach will submit the school district’s SIA application at the March school board meeting. This SIA application includes a plan on how to spend the additional $720,000 the school district will receive next year and every year after.

“The Smarter Balanced scores reflect very important information – where students are in English Language Arts (reading/writing), math, and science at specific grade levels” Erlebach said. “However, it doesn’t take into consideration or assess the district’s initiatives with music, band, art, culinary arts, physical education, student well-being, career technical education, or specific capital improvement investments. This past year the school district built a welding lab and renovated the chemistry classroom."

Erlebach said Neah-Kah-Nie School District is very fortunate to have school administrators, licensed and classified staff, and a progressive school board that not only reviews testing data, but makes the necessary changes to improve areas of concern.

Nestucca School District

Nestucca High School, Nestucca Valley Middle School and Nestucca Valley Elementary School reside in the Nestucca School District. While there were pockets in which the district pulled ahead of state scores and some areas met expectations, schools in the area also had room for improvement on math and language testing results.

At the time results were released, records showed 471 students were enrolled in the district with 65 percent of students on free or reduced-price lunch, and an 89-percent graduation rate.

Standout grade performances could be seen from 11th grade math (15 percent above state), fourth grade English (4 points above state) and fifth grade math (4 percent above state). The lowest scores were seen for sixth grade English (17 percent below state), third grade English (13 percent below state), and eight grade math (12 percent below state).

Despite this year’s success, math test scores for 11th graders fell more than 18 percent from 2018 while English fell more than 3 percent. Middle school scores were down except for a nearly five-percent jump in seventh grade English. There were mixed results at the elementary level, with big gains in 2019 for fifth grade English (up 16 percent) and math (up 28 percent), but losses of 25 percent for tests on sixth grade English, 20 percent for math.

Nestucca Superintendent Misty Wharton said the district performs better than schools that are similar in student subgroups or economic challenges. She highlighted the 92 percent on-track statistic for ninth graders, where the state average is 85 percent for freshmen tracking graduation requirements. This past year, every senior who started at Nestucca High School graduated successfully.

Wharton believes relationships are at the foundation of education. Her district, like others, takes care to make connections between students and staff. She finds it valuable for students to know there is an adult to turn to for any number of concerns. While it’s not a formal system, Wharton said the school size makes it easier to know and follow every student, every family.

Small class size is also part of what throws test results around dramatically, Wharton said, noting that one or two students having an off day could affect the numbers when classes are small. Because of that, the district uses other methods and tests to monitor the progress of students and the overall performance of the schools. Wharton also noted that opt-out numbers in other districts should be evidence to legislators that not everyone values the state tests as performance gauges.

Student Success Act funding is also coming to Nestucca. A strategic plan adopted in 2017 will guide that spending. Wharton pointed to a great need for social and emotional wellness programs, particularly at the elementary level. She said if students don’t feel safe, aren’t well fed, aren’t having their needs met, they will struggle in an academic setting and may exhibit unproductive behavior.

Wharton said you won’t find all of Nestucca’s success within the state test scores. She said it’s found in other teaching and testing methods applied throughout the year, and in the feedback from teachers and students.

“That’s what we’re really good at in this district,” Wharton said. “We care about our kids whether they have an A or an F.”

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