Superintendent says improvements urgent as tests show two out of three Salem kids can’t read proficiently

Local schools must act with “urgency” to improve students’ ability to read and do math, Salem-Keizer School District officials said following the release of state test results showing further declines in student performance.

State data released Thursday shows just one in three students in Oregon’s second largest district can read in English at their grade level based on standardized test results from last spring.

The number is slightly lower than in 2022, when 33.5% of students scored proficient on a state test. In 2023, just 32% were proficient. Proficient means they can readily read, analyze text, write and cite evidence at their grade level.

Math results were similarly concerning, with just one in five students meeting state standards.

Students are tested in both subjects in third, fourth, fifth, eighth and eleventh grade.

“These results have our full attention,” said Superintendent Andrea Castañeda in an interview with Salem Reporter. She said the district needs “a sustained focus on the fundamentals that really work and that will serve our students well. That means great instructional practices, great materials, the time teachers need to serve our students.”

Castañeda became superintendent July 1.

The numbers show Salem-Keizer has made little progress in recovering ground lost during the pandemic, as students locally and across Oregon recorded significant drops in their proficiency.

In 2019, 43.6% of district students were proficient in reading, and 33.1% in math.

The ability to read proficiently is key to student success in every subject, since a student who can’t understand written material will struggle to learn math, science or other topics. Students who can’t read proficiently by fourth grade are significantly more likely to end up in jail or prison.

Scores for Salem students are also worse than state averages. In Oregon, 43% of students were proficient in English reading, and 30.6% in math in 2023.

Results varied significantly from school to school and across grades. Castañeda said she doesn’t want to overreact to a single data point showing large gains or losses in one school in one year. Rather, she said district leaders need to make sure good practices are in place at every school and in every classroom.

“We can’t claim sustained progress at any grade level right now. We expect ups and downs because classes are different and schools are different…but at a system of our size we do need to be able to point to sustained progress across grades and we’re not quite there,” she said.

Improving early literacy has been a focus for Gov. Tina Kotek. Oregon legislators this year allocated nearly $150 million to an early literacy initiative to support teacher training, elementary school reading curricula and tutoring.

District leaders outlined several steps they’re taking to improve student performance.

Teacher training and preparation time at schools is now more focused on reviewing student results and looking at smaller tests given in class. That lets teachers see in real time whether students are retaining material, collaborate on the best ways to teach and adjust how they’re teaching, said Iton Udosenata, assistant superintendent.

That focus began in the spring and is key for this school year, he said. Since the pandemic, schools have been more focused on “care and connection,” supporting student mental health and reaching out to those not in school. Udosenata said schools have systems in place to provide support to students and can now drill more into academics.

Castañeda reiterated a district focus on attendance this school year, saying the community needs a reset from the pandemic, when school attendance felt more optional.

“Students are not learning if they are not in school. We need everyone’s help getting students to school all day, full days, every day,” she said.

The Salem-Keizer School Board earlier this month adopted a results policy intended to guide the superintendent and her cabinet. The board set five goals to improve, including the share of third graders who can read proficiently in English.

In 2023, 24% of third graders were proficient, the new data shows. The board goals call for increasing that number to 27.3% in 2024, and to 34% by 2028.

“Our convictions are unchanged around this. We had a strong sense of how ambitious the results policy was when we started and the incremental targets per year are still exactly where we want to be focused,” Castañeda said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.