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Pandemic leaves holes, questions in the newest state reports on schools

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Rachael McDonald
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Like 2020, 2021 was a year unlike any other for Oregon students. And for the second year in a row, Oregon’s At-A-Glance profiles, released Thursday, reflect that.
 
But unlike 2020′s release, which lacked a lot of usual data points, like attendance and test results, there’s a little more information this time around.
 
You just won’t find it all on the school and district report pages.
 
The attendance and achievement data will be posted on separate pages, where the state says it can share context for what the data show, and explain why it’s not comparable to past years.
 
“The At-A-Glance School and District profiles tell a story about Oregon’s schools and districts,” reads a special note in a sample school profile shared during an Oregon Department of Education webinar with media. “The story is harder to tell this year as the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted our schools and the data we collect.”
 
Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill noted among the positive signs in the newly released profiles, there was a 9.5% increase in mental health staff and other counselors, thanks to funding from the state’s Student Investment Account and other sources.
 
But there was also a near 12 percentage point decrease in the number of 9th graders that were on track to graduate, meaning a smaller share of students earned a quarter of the credits needed to graduate high school. Gill underscored the importance of the decrease — from 85.3% in 2018-2019 to 73.6% — as an area high schools need to focus on.
 
“That’s really critical for us to learn and understand — and at the local level, for the districts to jump in and work on right away,” Gill said.
 
For another year, class size information is not included in the profiles.
 
“With distance and hybrid learning, the notion of what is a class and how large it is was just completely different last year,” said Jon Wiens, ODE’s director of accountability and reporting.
 
Wiens said the state will still report that data later in the month, just not in school and district profiles.
 
When it comes to daily attendance, tracking that in-person usually means a student is physically in school. But most of Oregon’s students were in comprehensive distance learning for at least some of last year. Schools were required to track attendance last year, but had some leeway in how to do that. Oregon’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance offered several examples, like turning in an online assignment, or communicating with a teacher.
 
“There would be some variations based on local district practices in how they may have implemented that guidance,” Wiens said.
 
“...this year, even comparing across school districts, you need to be a little bit cautious, because there may have been slightly different ways districts operationalized the attendance requirements.”
 
In some districts, the quality and consistency of the attendance data are suspect. In Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, attendance data shows about two-thirds of schools have numbers for students included, how many regularly attended, and how many were chronically absent. Those numbers range from 26.4% attending regularly, all the way up to 94.8%.
 
The other third of schools have no numbers, with the percent of “regular attenders” marked greater than 95%, with 5% of students chronically absent.
 
“It was hard always to track where students were at all points in the day, because they were not ever in front of us, they were either on the screen or they were asynchronous,” said PPS deputy superintendent for instruction and communities Shawn Bird.
 
“That did present some challenges.”
 
Testing data also proved inadequate or unusable for comparison to previous years. Line after line in a spreadsheet of statewide assessment school results includes a data caution: “Low participation rates, do not use for comparison purposes.”
 
Last spring, Oregon received a waiver from the federal government to test fewer students, even as school boards voted not to administer the tests to any students. That showed in the state’s participation rates for statewide assessments.
 
Participation in the tests, given to students in grades 3-8 and in grade 11, ranged from 11.1% to 37.5% in math and language arts, with a participation rate average of 31% across all grades.
 
No grade had more than 16,000 students participating, with highest participation rates in elementary grades.
 
What’s also missing from the profiles is any comparison to previous years. With testing data, Wiens said the data Oregon does have is not “predictive or informative.”
 
But Gill said the data — even with all its holes — is a reflection of the last year and decisions made to support students first.
 
“All of those changes that we made in the way we collect data are all intertwined with all of these individual decisions about each student,” Gill said. “...This data is really challenging because of all of those decisions that were made.”
 
ODE has collected numbers and demographics of students and school staff. The demographic ratios between teachers and students is where officials in the Salem-Keizer school district see room to improve.
 
“We still have a 35-percentage point difference in the number of Hispanic and Latino students attending school and the number of teachers who represent Hispanic and Latino cultures and languages,” Salem-Keizer officials wrote in an email to OPB.
 
Ninth grade on-track rates provide some of the only new information evaluating student learning and progress over the 2020-2021 school year.
 
Also included in this year’s profiles are on-track rates for last year’s 9th graders, the first time this data has been collected in two years.
 
Though all students experienced a decrease from 2018-2019 to 2020-2021, some student groups lost more ground than others.
 
Statewide, 9th grade on-track rates for Ever English Learners (students who at one point in their school careers received extra support to learn English), students with disabilities, and homeless students all decreased by 11 percentage points or more.
 
The data also show a continued gap between white and Asian students and other groups of students of color. Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, Latino students had decreases of 22, 16, and 15 percentage points respectively.
 
Oregon officials expect the numbers to increase now that students are back in-person.
 
“We do expect that these numbers will climb back up again,” Wiens said.
 
In Oregon’s largest school districts, officials say they’re focused on getting those students back on track while also serving current 9th graders.
 
For district leaders, this newly published data likely isn’t new to them, and doesn’t offer much information at all, said PPS’ Shawn Bird.
 
“There wasn’t much data there, actually, because we didn’t give the summative assessment last year,” Bird said. “So there’s not much to glance at, if you will, on those reports this year.”
 
Last year, Beaverton officials monitored attendance in real time. But like Portland, several Beaverton schools do not have numbers for student attendance in ODE’s data.
 
And today, with students in-person again, Beaverton officials do not report the level of attendance concerns that they did when students were learning at home, online.
 
Beaverton officials say they’ve also been aware of the district’s 9th grade on-track rate, which dropped from 89% in 2018-2019 to 80.4% in 2020-2021. The district also cites a recent “add-on” to Canvas, an online system for high school students, to flag students who are falling behind.
 
Oregon’s other large districts, Portland, and Salem-Keizer, also saw decreases in 9th grade on-track rates. In Portland, it dipped from 91% to 86%. In Salem-Keizer, rates tumbled from 85% to 70.1%, a decrease of 14.9%.
 
Specific groups saw even larger decreases, especially among English learners. Bird said having those students at school in-person will help provide more of an opportunity to get them up to speed.
 
“Now that they’re back in school and in front of us, we can do some assessments with them and do some interventions that will help catch them up,” Bird said.
 
Portland and Salem-Keizer also say they’ve enlisted mentors and tutors to better support students. In Portland, federal funds have helped pay for an expanded Virtual Scholars program.
 
“We have hubs throughout the district, so it’s closer to where students are,” Bird said.
 
But, noting a decrease in on-time graduation data for American Indian and Alaskan Native students, as well as for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, Salem-Keizer director of strategic initiatives Suzanne West acknowledged that supports provided to those students last year may not have been successful.
 
“With these data, we need to reflect on whether our strategies are adequate to meet the needs of our Native American/Alaskan Native and Pacific Islander/Hawaiian Native students and, if not, adjust the allocation of our resources,” West said.
 
Now that the majority of Oregon students are back in schools in-person, next year’s profiles will likely include more information. That includes assessment data — and not just the state-mandated summative exams, known as Smarter Balanced. Administrators suggest it will be easier to administer interim tests that more directly inform classroom instruction.
 
In Portland, MAP assessments, a district-wide testing program from NWEA, are underway.
 
“We look forward to seeing our fall assessment data and matching that with what teachers see in their classes,” Bird said.
 
Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting.