Oregon will test 11th-graders using 10th-grade tests
March 03, 2010, 7:22PMOregon is moving its 10th-grade tests in reading, writing, math and science to the 11th grade, saying many students need another year of high school to learn the skills covered on the tests.
The tests were written for sophomores, and the minimum passing scores were set based on how sophomores performed on the tests. But, beginning next school year, they will be given to juniors, and the state's high schools will be judged by how many of their students pass the exams by the end of junior year.
Oregon got permission from the U.S. Department of Education to make the standard easier for schools.
When Oregon sophomores take the tests, a lot of them fail, particularly in math. Last year, 46 percent of 10th-graders flunked that test, 45 percent failed the writing test and 42 percent failed in science.
Low passing rates on the state reading and math tests are the main reason that Oregon high schools get worse ratings on state and federal accountability reports than the state's elementary and middle schools.
Educators are hopeful that, with another year of instruction under their belts, more high schools students will be able to pass.
The testing window now in place for sophomores runs from October through mid-May, meaning they must take the exam "when there are still at least four weeks of instruction left in their sophomore year," says McMinnville High principal Kris Olsen. "We want to ensure that all kids have an opportunity to be exposed to all of the 10th-grade curriculum before they have to take this test."
Most schools will continue to give the tests to sophomores, then focus on helping those who fail to learn the missing skills before retesting them as juniors, Olsen said.
Jack Jennings, president of the non-profit Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, has tracked how states have changed their testing programs since the 2001 passage of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which increased accountability and sanctions for schools that post low test scores. Some states lowered the scores a student needs to pass the state test to help schools avoid low ratings.
Jennings could not recall another state moving its high school exams to a higher grade, and said it suggests Oregon may be lowering its expectations for its schools or its students.
"It does seem unusual to move a 10th-grade proficiency set of tests to the 11th grade," he said. "If you thought 10th-graders could do something, and then you shift the measurement of that skill to 11th grade, it at least raises the question of whether they have lowered the standard."
Schools will still be able to give the tests to sophomores, and those that pass won't have to retest as juniors, said Susanne Smith, communications manager for the Oregon Department of Education. But all students who have not passed before junior year will have to take the exams that year, and schools will be judged according to how many of their students pass by the end of junior year.
Students have always been permitted to retake state tests as juniors if they failed them as sophomores. But most students did not do so, state officials say. Of roughly 25,000 sophomores who failed at least one test, about 6,000 retook the math test and about 2,000 retook the reading tests as juniors, according to Jon Wiens, accountability specialist at the state education department.
The Oregon Board of Education decided several years ago that, beginning with this year's sophomores, students will have to pass the state reading test to get a high school diploma. This year's freshmen will have to pass the state writing test, too. And today's eighth graders will have to pass in reading, writing and math to get their diplomas.
Smith, the department spokeswoman, said the state is not lowering the standards on any of the tests, it is merely giving schools and students more time before the results count.
"The ultimate goal," she said, "is to get those kids ready to graduate."
-- Betsy Hammond