Portland school leaders say big gaps based on race and ethnicity signify an ‘urgent call to action’

For the first time since Oregon schools began a long period of pandemic-related disruptions, statewide standardized test results show how students did. While Portland elementary schools, such as Sabin Elementary (pictured), showed some growth in math, the overall trend was a sharp downturn.

Rob Manning / OPB

Test scores are down across Oregon and across the country, compared with results before the COVID-19 pandemic led to shuttered school buildings, staffing shortages and long periods of students learning from home.

Overall, Portland’s declines were not as sharp as the state as a whole.

But Oregon’s largest district had plenty of reason for concern, in data shared by Chief of Research, Assessment and Accountability Renard Adams at a press conference with reporters Thursday. Top among those concerns were enormous gaps based on race and ethnicity.

“Overall, in English language arts, 17% of Black students, 29% of Latino students, and 32% of Native American students are proficient across grades three through eight and 11. This compares to 67% of white students,” Adams said.

“In math, we see stronger results.”

On the math exams, Adams cited data showing the following proficiency rates for students at the grade levels tested: 8% for Black students, 13% for Indigenous students, 21% for Latino students and 56% for white students.

“These data are also an urgent call to action and a call for an examination of our practices,” Adams said. “Every day, our amazing teachers show up for students and work tirelessly to educate them, and yet, still we have these results .”

Portland’s persistent achievement gaps have been a focus of attention for years, most recently in a blistering audit from the Oregon Secretary of State’s office in 2019. However, auditors also recognized “important steps” underway at the time under the leadership of Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero.

Guerrero said Thursday that district leaders and teachers are already making changes, but the results showed the urgency of moving ahead.

“While there’s remarkable things happening in PPS schools, we recognize that our Black, Native American and students of color benefit from a consistent educational experience — one that includes the necessary equitable supports, where instruction is inclusive in its practice — culturally and linguistically responsive, Guerrero said.

The superintendent added that implementation is underway on a new instructional framework, updated curriculum, a renewed focus on professional development and an expanded system of supports aimed at speeding up learning for students who fell behind during the pandemic.

“Our plan in motion includes deep work […] with our educators, focused on bringing a greater consistency and higher quality educational experience for our students,” Guerrero said.

District leaders say they’re already seeing evidence of improvement based on the steps they’ve taken. Test scores released Thursday show average math scores were up in some of the elementary grades.

“We’d like to attribute that to our curricular adoption last year,” Adams said. “Based on that curricular adoption — which was really the only thing that changed last year for those students — we saw increases in grade three, grade four, and grade five was flat.”

Adams said a similar curriculum change is coming to the middle grades, where scores were down on the most recent tests. He’s hoping to see a “reversal of those performance trends” in middle school.

District administrators said they also anticipate improvements with a greater focus on professional development, aimed at ensuring teachers can use the new curriculum materials. Senior Director of K-5 Academics Emily Glasgow said that teacher training already started over the summer with multi-day sessions, including as many as 2,500 educators.

Glasgow said training will continue Friday, when district schools are closed, with further professional development on the curriculum for more than 2,000 teachers. She said elementary teachers will have a chance to go over math test results from the school year just underway.

“They can sit together with grade-level colleagues, look at real-time data of where their students are walking into their classrooms this fall, and make a differentiated plan moving forward that they can implement as soon as Monday,” Glasgow said.

District leaders acknowledge that the newly released test results confirm schools have a lot of catching up to do with many students, and that time teachers spend together should be closely tied to the best ways to improve instruction and student learning.

“We’re continually reflecting on ‘Are we having the desired impact?'” Guerrero said. “That’s how schools get better.”

One systemic step, aimed at targeting multiple school communities with learning losses, is the addition of what the district calls “learning acceleration instructional specialists.” The district says these are veteran teachers who will work closely with school teaching staff to help guide reading and math instruction, as well as support for students who need them.

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