Oregon’s top education official finds it concerning that Bend-La Pine Schools’ state testing opt-out rates remain high among 11th-graders.

Close to 60 percent fewer high school juniors in Central Oregon’s largest school district took the English and math Smarter Balanced exams compared with statewide averages in 2018, according to data released by the Oregon Department of Education on Thursday morning.

Districtwide, 21.5 percent of 11th-graders took the English Smarter Balanced exam, 20.6 percent took the math assessment and 2.1 percent took the OAKS science exam, according to state data. Those numbers are a sharp contrast to the statewide participation averages of 85.9 percent, 83.1 percent and 76.3 percent.

Meanwhile, most Central Oregon high schools outside of Bend-La Pine Schools had participation rates closer to, or above, the state average.

“A lot of the ways resources at the statewide level are distributed are based on these kinds of assessments,” Colt Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education, said Wednesday. “These assessments might not feel important to an individual student … but they’re critical to help us know which schools should receive these supports.”

Bend-La Pine district officials said the lack of participation among 11th-graders is “a large concern.”

However, the district uses other measurements, such as ACT scores, to evaluate student proficiency in math, English and science.

“We can’t control how many students opt out, that’s parents’ and students’ decision,” Bend-La Pine Superintendent Shay Mikalson said. “Having multiple measures is key. When one (method) has high opt out, it becomes less useful … and we have to rely more on the ACT.”

La Pine and Summit high schools had no reported state test data, an echo of how few students were tested in those schools last year. Mountain View High School’s participation rates plummeted from 30.7 percent in English and 25.4 percent in math last year to 3.8 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. Bend High School slightly bucked the trend, with just under 35 percent of students taking the math and English exams.

La Pine High School Principal Mike Montgomery said one reason why his school might have had no participants is that movements spread quickly in a small school with a student population under 500.

“It only takes a few to feed the fire,” he said.

According to Gill, the state tests serve as a snapshot for how the entire state is doing, but can be used to inform school districts and state education officials about where they need to place resources to improve student outcomes. How a school or group of students performs on the state tests can also identify where federal dollars for disadvantaged students, like English language learners or students with disabilities, should go.

Still, Bend-La Pine’s officials believe they can show student competency, or a lack thereof, in a certain school or subject using other methods.

Bend-La Pine Deputy Superintendent Jay Mathisen said students in Oregon must demonstrate knowledge of “essential skills” in order to graduate. They can achieve that in multiple ways, including earning certain scores on state tests or college aptitude tests, such as the ACT or SAT.

Bend-La Pine Schools offers the ACT for free to 11th- graders, and about 90 percent of the district’s juniors take it. Mathisen said he believes many students take the ACT as a replacement for state tests.

La Pine High School Vice Principal Anne-Marie Schmidt, who oversees testing for her school, agreed and added that students didn’t want to miss class because of the state tests.

Mathisen and Mikalson said because the state has benchmark scores for the ACT and the state tests, the district can use ACT scores to measure its students’ proficiencies in math, English and science, and compare them to other districts’ schools, if needed.

”The state doesn’t (compare) those currently, but they could,” Mikalson said. “That’s what we do internally, when we’re looking at progressions throughout the state.”

Gill said different districts using alternative tests to judge student competency made it challenging to compare schools and identify those that need assistance. Although the state could consider offering the ACT statewide alongside a traditional state exam, Gill said it couldn’t be used because the test doesn’t meet state requirements for students with special needs and those who are English learners. The ACT is also more expensive than Smarter Balanced tests.

“(ACT tests) are meant for college-bound students, which is great, but they’re not aligned for all Oregon students,” Gill said.

Despite 11th-graders’ low participation, Bend-La Pine had a higher percentages of elementary and middle school students taking state tests — typically between 75 percent and 90 percent. In Oregon, students in third through seventh grades take math and English tests, and in fifth, eighth and 11th grade, students take math, English and science tests. Bend-La Pine students in elementary and middle schools tested higher than the state average in all three subjects.

“The quality of instruction given to our students is obviously paying dividends,” Mikalson said, regarding his district’s high passing rates.

Crook County High School’s 11th-graders had a sharp rise in English scores, 77.3 percent of students passed, compared to 63.5 percent last year, coupled with a more modest bump in math scores. Assistant Principal Joel Hoff said overall, the school had a great year, despite the amount of students who passed the science exams dropping by 12.4 percentage points.

“It’s hard to pinpoint one exact factor that leads to improvement,” he said. “One thing we’ve focused on big-picture wise is … why students need to work hard, and connecting it to their lives outside of high school.”

Nearly every junior at Crook County High took the state tests, with at least 98 percent present for all three exams. Hoff said he believes the high participation is because students know performing well can help them graduate and give their teachers better feedback.

Madras High School had high participation rates for its math and English exams, but only an 11.5 participation rate for the science test. Co-principal H.D. Weddel said his school emphasizes the first two state tests more than science, in which the district uses ACT scores for monitoring student progress. Like Bend-La Pine, Jefferson County School District lets all 11th-graders take the ACT for free.

Despite the high turnout, Madras’ math scores were far below the state average, with only 14.9 percent of students passing — a drop from last year’s benchmark of 19.3 percent. The district is beefing up its efforts to improve math scores through teacher training in all its schools, Weddel said.

“I think we’ll see improvement in the future based on a lot of the work that’s been happening in the last year,” he said. “We’re working really hard to make this school equal to and better than any school in Central Oregon.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854; jhogan@bendbulletin.com