Tougher Oregon Math Tests Yield Fewer, Better Passing Scores

Published October 5, 2011

Oregon students did better than expected in their first go at new, tougher math tests, but the lack of an exact comparison to previous tests prompted questions about whether the state’s evaluation of overall progress is accurate. 

On the state’s 2010-2011 assessments, the average elementary student’s passing math score increased by 2.7 points, while the average passing middle school score increased by 1.3 points, said Crystal Greene, public affairs manager for the Oregon Department of Education. But fewer students passed the tests. The Oregon State Board of Education adopted new math standards in October 2010 and raised the score required to pass.

These improvements may seem like a victory, but they are also politically convenient, said Christina Martin, a policy analyst at the Oregon-based Cascade Policy Institute.

Educators made lower predictions to compensate for the higher standards, Martin said, so the scores may actually have dropped this year if a flat scale were applied between tests. She said the scores are still “mediocre” overall.

“It just seems like a clever way to spin this to make it politically convenient and make it a victory when we’re not sure,” Martin said.

Focusing Math Curriculum
The state Board of Education considered altering the math standards for four years before voting in 2007 to change Oregon’s math curriculum to cover fewer topics in greater depth.

“It’s easier now for teachers to teach the standards, since they’re not a mile wide and an inch deep anymore,” said Shannon McCaw, a textbook author and math consultant who helps improve math instruction around the state.

Another reason for the higher scores may be that many schools administered exams nearer the end of the school year, allowing more instruction time. Previously, exams were held in February.

Fewer Pass, but Pass Higher
Every grade’s pass scores were higher on the new math standards. Passing third graders, for example, performed 16 percent better. Fourth graders improved 19 percent, and eighth graders 12 percent.

Although students performed better on average, fewer students passed. In third grade, 16 percent fewer students met the 2010-2011 standards than met the 2009-2010 standards. In fourth grade, 14 percent fewer students passed, and 7 percent fewer eighth graders did.

“Not all students will get over this higher bar the first year,” said Susan Castillo, Oregon’s superintendent of public instruction. “But today’s results clearly indicate that our students are on the right rack. If we provide our students with high-quality instruction, rigorous expectations, and strong instructional supports, they can and will achieve at high levels.”

Despite concerns about a proper comparison, Martin said she supports the higher standards.

“Especially with No Child Left Behind, there is a built-in incentive to make tests easier so that scores are higher,” she said. “I like that here it seems to be going the other way. This is a victory, but I’m hesitant to put faith in the test scores.”

Image by Steve Ryan.