Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Beaver State Shuffle

What does a state's education system do when it's chronically short of money and its high schools aren't doing well enough to satisfy the federal government? proposes throwing-out its student competency test and replacing it with a "must pass" high school exit exam. Oh, yes... the state of Oregon is also considering additional mandatory classes and increased performance expectations:
State schools superintendent Susan Castillo laid the groundwork for major changes this month, when she threw her weight behind a plan that's long been bandied about the Legislature: Abolishing the test given to Oregon 10th graders, formally known as the certificate of initial mastery, or CIM.

The CIM, designed to demonstrate that students could meet state standards in reading, math and writing, was not required for graduation in most districts, and never caught on widely among high school students. Colleges — even the state's seven public universities — paid it little heed, never linking it to either scholarship money or admissions.

The changes Castillo wants to make, which will need approval from legislators, should become clearer in 2006. But she has said she'd rather see high school diplomas mean more, perhaps requiring students to pass a test in order to earn one, a practice that's already in use in 25 other states.

State officials have also said they're intrigued by the concept of having students complete a mandatory portfolio project, a method that's expensive and time-consuming for teachers, but also deflects complaints that too much emphasis is being placed on a single test.

The state board of education, usually a fairly quiescent body, expects to weigh in on all this in 2006, and is also considering a recommendation to ratchet up high school graduation requirements, beyond even the extra year of math and English that legislators tacked on, beginning with the class of 2011.

All the focus on the state's high schools comes from years of data showing that student standardized testing scores peak in elementary school and dip steadily from there, reaching dismal lows by the time students hit 10th grade. Only 80 of the state's high schools got their students to meet target federal education standards in the 2004-2005 school year, compared to 731 elementary and middle schools.

The state has petitioned the U.S. Department of Education, though, for some flexibility in how schools can chart the student progress required under the federal No Child Left Behind act. The hope is that if schools are allowed to account for the improvements individual students make over time, more schools will meet federal standards, particularly at the high school level. Up to ten states will be chosen for the flexibility; Oregon will find out this May whether it is among them.
Interestingly, State Superintendent Susan Castillo had nothing to say about reducing class sizes or giving teachers the additional classroom disciplinary authority needed to ensure that parents and students also do their part to help increase the likelihood of academic success.
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