New test score requirements reflect reality

Let's say you have been training for a marathon. You've been told that the finish line is 20 miles down the road and you've been working hard to build endurance and strength to make it there. The day of the race arrives and halfway through you discover that the finish line is actually at the 26.2-mile marker. You come up short because you needed more rigorous training time.

Oregon students go to school every day training for their academic finish line. With new diploma requirements phasing in next year, we know that students need more rigorous academic preparation at earlier grades to ensure success in high school.

Toward this end, the Oregon State Board of Education recently adopted two K-12 education reforms to help kids train harder. They adopted rigorous national learning expectations and increased the level of math students need to know in the earlier grade levels. Next month, they are considering an increase in the level of reading proficiency we need our students to reach.

Three years ago, the State Board of Education began this work by adopting rigorous high school requirements for students — transitioning Oregon's K-12 system of credits and seat time to one of proficiency, where students must demonstrate knowledge and skills in reading, writing and math in order to graduate. We must align expectations appropriately at every grade so that success in the preceding grade is predictive of success in the next.

I have asked the State Board of Education to increase math and reading achievement standards in the lower grades in preparation for the coming higher national learning expectations and the new graduation requirements. We are setting kids up for future failure in high school if we continue to set the bar low in the early grades.

Schools are understandably worried that as we raise standards, they will see fewer students meeting that higher bar. Parents, students, teachers and the community need to understand that lower scores will not mean students know less than they did the year before, or that they are somehow "doing worse in school," just that the measuring stick has changed. New interim achievement standards require a higher level of mastery of information and concepts. We must recognize that it will take time for students to catch up to these more rigorous academic and achievement standards. We must also recognize that it will take significant resources to get struggling learners to this higher bar.

It is better to miss the right target than to hit a lower bar and falsely tell kids they have the knowledge to succeed. By setting the right expectations, schools will have the information they need to help students reach a higher proficiency in math and reading for each grade level for final success in high school.

We cannot continue to tell our children that they are proficient on a test that we give inside Oregon boundaries, knowing that they will not be considered proficient when they are compared to peers outside Oregon. We cannot wait another day to raise the rigor as we move toward a system of national learning expectations.

Oregon students and parents are counting on us to give them straight answers. Let's not tell them success is at the 20-mile marker when it is really six miles down the road.

Susan Castillo is Oregon's superintendent of public instruction.

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