- Associated Press - Friday, September 9, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Four Oregon high schools outperformed the rest, equipping two-thirds or more of their students with the writing, reasoning, research and math skills they’ll need in college and in life, new test scores indicate.

The schools could not be more different. One, Helix, is set amid farmland and has a senior class of 16, while another, Lakeridge, enrolls 1,200 Lake Oswego teens. The others are small-town Elmira and suburban Wilsonville high schools.

But they all embrace the nation’s new college-ready standards, the Common Core. They show that an Oregon school can propel nearly all its students to that level, even when parents aren’t perfect, funding is tight and a growing share of students are low-income or non-white.

Common Core standards call on students to master sophisticated, intellectually complex tasks: read and synthesize college-level texts, construct a coherent argument and marshal evidence to support it, apply math to multi-step real-world problems and explain the logic underlying that work.

Walk through a school where educators buy into those standards, and you’ll hear the difference, principals and teachers say.

Students talk a lot in class, explaining their own rationales, critiquing other students’ thinking, citing the logic behind their work. Class discussions and student writing draw on sophisticated vocabularies. Math and science tie to real-life problems, often requiring students to communicate how they reach a solution as well as what that answer is.

“Our focus on student thought, through talking and writing, is helping us grow achievement,” says Wilsonville High Principal Dan Schumaker.

Nearly 20 percent of the students at his school are Latino, and 30 percent are low-income.

Lakeridge High, meanwhile, serves an overwhelmingly white and Asian student body in an area where most parents are college-educated and well-off financially. At Elmira High, which enrolls 400 students in a town of 2,500 west of Eugene, 60 percent are low-income. Remote Helix High, with its senior class of 16 students, sits far from Oregon’s bigger cities on the dry plains east of Pendleton.

Those schools managed to help roughly two-thirds of their students pass the difficult Smarter Balanced math test, twice the rate schools achieved statewide. And they saw from 89 percent of students (Elmira) to 100 percent (Helix) conquer the English exam, which requires excellence in reading, writing, listening and research.

Educators, college professors and employers in a consortium of 17 states agreed the test’s demands match up with what students need to know to succeed in college and hold good-paying jobs in an increasingly global economy.

Statewide, results of the second year of Smarter Balanced testing were disappointing. Performance was essentially flat, with 45 percent of students in grades three through 11 falling short of Common Core standards in reading and writing and nearly 60 percent coming up short in math.

But Lakeridge, Helix, Wilsonville and Elmira suggest how much more is possible.

Teachers there check carefully to ensure what they are teaching matches what the standards call for. And they teach that material differently, amping up the frequency and sophistication of classroom talk, asking students to write more, emphasizing research and evidence, educators from those schools say. They check to see students are mastering what’s needed and tweak instruction to fix any holes.

Some parents, teachers and retired educators in Oregon are highly critical of Smarter Balanced testing and the mania of test preparation they say the exam engenders. They say the tests focus on skills that make for a corporate, joyless version of public education and are designed to make schools, teachers and students look bad.

Educators at schools such as Lakeridge and Elmira say teaching to the new test creates the opposite: excellent instruction that honors student voice, engages their intellects, connects them to real-world issues and shows their own potential to play a role in them.

Tim Kahl is the English department at Helix High, teaching freshman English, senior English and every class in between. Three years ago, when he was hired, sample questions from prototype Smarter Balanced tests were just becoming public. Kahl realized it was on him to get Helix students prepared.

He started teaching to what the new test would demand. He assigned more non-fiction articles and harder books. He posed more sophisticated questions and told students to cite specific examples from the text in their answers. He assigned them to write argumentative papers with plentiful evidence to support their assertions.

“The kids get used to it,” he said. “So when they see that on the test, they’re like, “OK. This is no problem.’”

By last spring, he’d taught Helix juniors, the children of farmers, home health workers, business owners and machinists, that way for three years. All 16 passed the Smarter Balanced English test on their first try.

Elmira is bigger, with about 100 students in each grade. The school has become an academic powerhouse, thanks to excellent teachers, a culture of taking school seriously and a focus on ensuring every core class is aligned to Common Core expectations, Principal Gary Carpenter said.

The school has a dress code and bans swearing in the halls or in class, part of Carpenter’s drive for students to see high school as their job. “A high school diploma is worth six figures and up to $1 million over the course of a lifetime, and I expect them to treat school like a job,” he said.

Starting three years ago, every course, whether Algebra I or poetry, has been designed and documented to show how it covers Common Core standards and how student mastery of each particular standard is assessed.

“Our teachers have done a great job of that,” Carpenter said

Lakeridge has a huge advantage when it comes to getting students to pass the exam. College is a given for almost all of its students, and families have the educational background and finances to expose students to lots of enriching activities and provide help with homework.

Still, the school outdid similarly situated schools such as Lincoln, West Linn and Sherwood. Paying attention to what students have and have not mastered and showing them that Smarter Balanced results are a valuable indicator of college readiness has how well-prepared they are for college both helped, said Lakeridge Principal Jennifer Schiele.

Scoring well on the test is not the ultimate goal in itself, she said. But equipping students with the skills it covers is - and a passing score validates that Lakeridge’s teachers are doing that well, Lake Oswego Superintendent Heather Beck said.

“We’ve helped students understand what the test scores mean, what the data means, and how they can use that data to pursue their educational goals and course selection,” Schiele said.

The exam requires students to be strong writers, for example, and Lakeridge students do a substantial amount of writing in every class - not because it helps them pass the test, Schiele said, but because it helps them think and builds a skill they will rely on in college and in life for the rest of their lives.

“We succeed by focusing not on the test itself,” English teacher Joe Schloetter said, “but by striving to care about the students, about our expectations, about learning.”

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Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, https://www.oregonlive.com

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