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D21 expands language arts

For the first time in years, North Wasco County School District will have the same language arts curriculum across all grades this fall, thanks to a mandated $312,000 upgrade.

“We won’t know what teachers will really need until we get into next year and start digging into the curriculum,” District Superintendent Candy Armstrong said. “But we do know it will be a significant shift in teaching to the Common Core that is very different from what we’ve been doing in the past.”

The new curriculum will cost about $175 per student at the elementary level, amounting to about $267,575 overall, according to a recent presentation given to the District 21 school board.

At the high school, the change will cost about $32,000 for class sets of required reading texts and $13,000 for EdCaliber, an educational platform the district will use to access EngageNY, a free language arts curriculum based online.

The district’s purchase of the new materials was made according to the state’s latest review of language arts curriculum, the schedule for which states classrooms need to have updated language arts materials aligned with the Common Core Standards by fall 2014.

The state also plans an English language proficiency update by fall 2015, science by fall 2016 and math by fall 2017. The change is also driven by a shift to testing with more rigorous math and language arts expectations.

The adoption, according to Penny Grotting, assistant superintendent of the Columbia Gorge Education Service District, is on track with the regular cycle at which Oregon school districts adopt new educational materials. However, due to past budget cuts, Grotting said the district was “off cycle for the last adoption.”

“Before this point, teachers have basically been piecemealing things together, and there hasn’t been a defined curriculum across the district,” Grotting said. “This was especially true at the elementary level, so what this will do is provide a strong core curriculum no matter which school a student attends in district. It won’t be an educational lottery that determines the kind of curriculum they get, and what is being taught will now be completely uniform across the district.”

The new program at the elementary level is McGraw-Hill’s “Reading Wonders,” which Grotting, the main overseer of the academic changeover, describes as “a comprehensive core reading curriculum built on the five foundational skills of reading.”

Those five skills are phonemic awareness (understanding and recognizing sounds in words), phonics (word recognition through sound), vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. According to last year’s academic reports, 37 percent of third graders at Chenowith Elementary met state reading requirements, along with 35 percent of fourth graders and 41 percent of fifth graders.

At Colonel Wright Elementary, 50 percent of second graders were ranked as proficient, as were 43 percent of third graders, 42 percent of fourth graders and 38 percent of fifth graders.

Dry Hollow students’ testing showed 68 percent of third graders, 71 percent of fourth graders and 67 percent of fifth graders met state reading standards. Armstrong said teachers from across the district helped choose the curriculum and there was an almost unanimous decision. A grant provided by the Education Service District allowed high school staff to further review the new secondary materials from EngageNY, citing its increased “legwork” requirements for students to find nonfiction articles to enhance their study of fictional texts.

For many of these students, next year means a transition from the state OAKS assessment to Smarter Balanced.

“The new assessment is significantly different from the old and is also more rigorous,” Armstrong said.

According to the most recent report on The Dalles High School’s testing scores, 30 percent of freshmen met or exceeded state standards on the OAKS math assessment last year, as did 41 percent of sophomores and 50 percent of juniors. In reading, 61 percent of freshmen, 71 percent of sophomores and 69 percent of juniors met or exceeded the standards.

District-wide, language arts and math are the core subjects that need to be strengthened in order to improve students’ performance on state assessments overall, Armstrong said. “If students aren’t strong enough in those two areas,” she said, “it makes it hard for anything else to move forward in terms of student achievement.”

Grotting said the adoption will prepare students to meet more rigorous standards, but the district should expect a short-term drop in test scores.

“When implementing a new curriculum or assessment, there is usually an ‘implementation dip’ that occurs while everyone adjusts to new standards and curricula,” she said. “However, I expect that we will start seeing scores on the rise after this first year.”

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