Left to right: 4J parent Heather Kliever and her son Aiden Turpin, UO Education professor and 4J parent Jerry Rosiek, Fern Ridge High School Teacher geoff barrett
$7 million — that’s about how much a new standardized test for Oregon students will cost the state of Oregon this school year. The Smarter Balanced Assessment, rolling out for the first time this spring, is meant to measure how well Oregon K-12 schools are teaching in alignment with the Common Core State Standards, adopted in 2010.
But critics say the test is stressful for children because most students are predicted to fail. The test provides little valuable information to individual students, and some say it doesn’t accurately measure a school’s performance.
“There’s no evidence that high-stakes, mandatory, standardized testing improves the quality of education,” says Jerry Rosiek, a UO professor of education and Eugene School District 4J parent who is opting his daughter out of Smarter Balanced testing. “Things won’t get better unless you also provide the material means for classrooms to be more effective.”
The litany of criticisms continues: Last year, Oregon Education Association called for a moratorium on Smarter Balanced, and The Oregonian reported this month that Chief Education Officer Nancy Golden is backing off using Smarter Balanced for school ratings this year.
Some states are jumping ship altogether, or are in the process of doing so. A bill (SB 6030) in the Washington State Senate would withdraw the state from Common Core standards and the Smarter Balanced test. The bill has bipartisan support, as does House Bill 2835 in the Oregon Legislature, which would prohibit the Department of Education from “requiring school districts to align instruction or assignments with Common Core State Standards.”
One way parents can keep their children out of the test is by opting out — Oregon law clearly dictates that parents can remove their children from state testing for religious reasons or reasons of disability, and 4J has provided an opt-out form on its website. But the form includes a list of consequences of opting out of state tests, and it attempts to define what qualifies as a religious belief.
Rosiek says he’s concerned that parents aren’t getting the whole story.
At Edison Elementary School, Rosiek says, it would take only nine students opting out of the test to skew the usefulness of the test’s data, and he knows of 11 parents who are planning to do so. He says he wants parents to be fully informed about their rights to opt out, adding that if enough students don’t test, it could send a message to the district and the state that parents are pushing back against the onslaught of standardized testing.
“I think the tests, and the school system as a whole, are becoming obsessive about accountability,” Rosiek says, “and the way that obsession’s working out is trying to ensure quality through a process that is actually undermining quality. I don’t think it is conscionable to cooperate with that process.”
Nothing Else Matters
In 4J, the district will administer the Smarter Balanced test to third through eighth graders as well as high school students currently in their junior year. Kerry Delf, communications specialist for 4J, says the testing window for elementary schools opens March 10, but she expects younger students to take the test between early April and early June, while middle and high school students will take it between late April and late May. Timing will vary from school to school.
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium estimates that middle and high school students will require about four and a half hours to complete the English language arts assessment portion of the test and three to three and a half hours for the mathematics portion. Delf says the test will take place over multiple days, and there is no time limit for finishing.
Evelynn Larson, a parent at The Village School, says she worries that her daughter, a fifth grader, is not prepared to take the test, and that the predicted fail rate from the ODE of 60 to 65 percent is intimidating. “Just from my research, it seems like a very intense exam that is set up for my daughter to fail,” Larson says. “Why put my daughter into something we know she’s not going to do well at?”
The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium says on its website that, because new tests and standards set a higher bar, students are expected to do poorly at first, but performance will improve over time.
“They already take a lot of tests in school for their main lessons, and I feel like it’s just too much,” Larson says. “I don’t want her to feel bad about that, about failing.”
Roscoe Caron, a UO education professor, says the test might send the message that math and writing hold utmost importance, at the expense of other subject areas.
“When I talk with high school kids, I ask, ‘Does it matter if you don’t do well in mathematics while you’re doing an incredible job sewing with fabrics?’” Caron says. “Does it matter if you love art and are doing creative work there? It seems as if nothing else matters but this test stuff. Kids who don’t do well on these particular things get labeled as dumb. And they know it and live it.”
The Greater Good
Oregon schools have aligned their curriculum and instruction to the Common Core State Standards, which determine what a child should know by a particular grade level.
For example, one Common Core reading standard for fourth graders is, “Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking.” Teachers use Common Core-aligned curriculum and lesson plans to teach this standard to students, and the Smarter Balanced test is meant to assess whether students can demonstrate the appropriate skills.
“This is part of our system of school accountability nationwide, so federally, every state is required to have standards,” Delf says. “We’re required to assess students’ learning, and we’re required to use assessments as part of our system of school accountability.”
The Smarter Balanced test doesn’t hold individual students accountable based on their score — if they do poorly, they still move on to the next grade level, and it doesn’t affect the rest of their academic work. For this reason, Delf says, “this is not a high-stakes test. In fact, it’s a no-stakes test for kids in elementary and middle school. There are no actual consequences for students.”
But the schools themselves are judged based on how the school performs overall on the test, and that’s where accountability comes into play.
Rosiek says this culture of accountability is problematic because teachers aren’t being given the tools they need for their students to succeed on Smarter Balanced. “It is the case that assessment systems, no matter how expensive they look, are cheaper than personnel,” he says. “It’s expensive. But it is what’s needed, and the tests aren’t going to achieve it. The one way we could make schools better in Eugene, clearly, is to reduce class size.”
Rosiek says it’s as if the district is trying to reach the moon, but instead of investing time, money and resources into building a rocket, they’ve decided to use a slingshot because it’s more affordable. “The slingshot will never get us there,” he says. “High stakes, mandatory, standardized testing, without a correlating change in the structure of schools and investment in teacher professional development, will not improve schools. You have to get in and actually change and improve the schools. And that’s not happening.”
“Fear is the glue of the testing era,” says Caron, cofounder of the Community Alliance for Public Education (CAPE), a teacher’s group that is critical of standardized testing.
“The state is afraid of the federal government withholding money if they don’t do whatever the federal law says, no matter how crazy it is. And the districts are afraid of the state government punishing them by withholding funds.”
Caron says that teachers are afraid of how administrators will react if they question the test, and students are afraid of teachers, “that they won’t please them or be branded as failures.”
Heather Kliever, a 4J parent, says she thinks parents are interested in opting their children out of the test, but they’re not ready to commit. “I think there’s a lot of fear,” she says. “When you look at the ODE’s website, it talks about grading and ranking schools, and schools can get a ‘black mark’ for lack of participation in state testing. It feels like being punished.”
Geoff Barrett, a high school teacher in the Fern Ridge School District with two children in 4J schools, says this climate of fear stems from a punitive accountability system. “People are afraid to face possible sanctions from the state,” he says.
Barrett says he’s also concerned that the wording on 4J’s opt-out form will worry parents who don’t feel comfortable using a religious reason to excuse their child from testing. “It’s kind of intimidating, to have to initial several times that it’s for religious purposes,” says Barrett, who is opting his children out of Smarter Balanced for reasons of religion. “Some might feel it’s a stretch for them.”
Just Say No
Religion is one of two ways parents can opt their children out of state testing, and on the 4J-provided opt-out form, parents can check one of two boxes.
The first is a request based on disability, which exempts children with a disability that “interferes with his or her ability to participate in state tests.” The decision to opt a child out of state testing due to a disability is usually a team decision, made by parents and special education instructors based on individual education plans.
The second option is the one centered on religious beliefs, and this is where things get tricky. The 4J opt-out form expands on Oregon Administrative Rule 581-022-1910, which simply states that “religious beliefs” are grounds to exempt a child from testing — in a way, similar to the law allowing students to opt out of vaccinations for religious beliefs, but outside the arena of public health.
The 4J district’s form elaborates on this by adding the words “sincerely held” and requiring parents to initial a statement that reads, “The term ‘religious beliefs’ means religious, moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious convictions. Merely wishing to avoid testing, or having political or social objections to testing not based on sincerely held religious belief, do not meet the requirements for the exemption.”
“Being able to constrain and specify what a religious belief is — that’s not really something the district is competent to do or legally allowed to do,” Rosiek says. “That’s all language they added to the law, not what the law actually says.”
Delf says that 4J staff wrote the opt-out form in a joint process, and staff members consulted with ODE to learn more about circumstances in which parents could opt their children out of testing.
Rosiek emphasizes that parents should not be afraid to excuse their children from testing just because they don’t sit in a pew or attend a mosque — parents can define “religious belief” in whatever way they see fit.
Testing or Else
At Edison Elementary School, Rosiek says, misinformation abounded. He says rumors circulated that neighborhood property values could drop as a result of too many children opting out of Smarter Balanced, or the state could reduce funding or shut the school down — all absolutely untrue, he says.
Rosiek says he asked the parent council at Edison to share information on opting out with other parents and they refused, so he scheduled four information sessions for parents and teachers who had questions about the test and opting out of it. Shortly after, 4J released its online opt-out form.
But on its form, the 4J school district does emphatically caution against opting out of testing, devoting half a page to the consequences of not taking the test. Reasons listed include a loss of information (not to the student, necessarily, but to the state), a lack of exposure to standardized tests that a student will encounter later in life and a drop in school rating.
Delf explains that schools receive yearly state ratings, Level 1 being the lowest and Level 5 being the highest. Schools must meet participation minimums of 94.5 percent for state testing, and if more than 5.5 percent of any student subgroup or the population in total do not participate in the test, that school’s state rating could get knocked down a level after it happens two years in a row.
“For businesses or parents looking at schools, a lot of people will look at a school’s rating and may not look a lot farther than that,” she says, adding that South Eugene High School is an example. “They’re a Level 3 this year because of participation, and that has implications for how the school is perceived. If a school gets lowered down to a Level 1 school, there could be some follow-up and scrutiny from the state.”
It’s very unlikely that local schools would see state intervention, Rosiek says, and federal intervention is even more unlikely. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Oregon has a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act protecting the state from any federal recrimination for a school testing under 94.5 percent of its population.
Oregon is one of 41 states that has this waiver, as No Child Left Behind is largely obsolete. According to a 2014 NPR article, No Child Left Behind declared that, nationally, all students should have reached proficiency in state assessments last year. Clearly, that didn’t happen.
And if the state notices a massive decline in test participation? Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, Rosiek says, adding that no matter how much the state wants to have the information provided by testing, parents can decide they don’t want it to be gathered, raising the conversation to a higher level.
Making a Statement
“This is the year that this movement will really get underway in 4J,” Caron says. “I think the wheels are going to come off the cart more than the district realizes. When OAKS [Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills] first started, it was a train wreck. I anticipate there’s going to be similar stuff happening this time.”
Rosiek, who spoke about standardized testing at City Club of Eugene on Feb. 20, says it’s not his intent to persuade parents in one direction or another, just to inform.
“It is my opinion that the public is best served when there is as much information circulating as possible, including opposing viewpoints,” he says. “Our only concern is that parents don’t have the decision made for them by people who are withholding the information from them.”
The deadline to opt children out of state testing is March 30 or two weeks before the test is scheduled. Those interested in learning more can see 4J’s opt-out form at http://wkly.ws/1yh and can visit the Eugene Parents Concerned about Testing Facebook page.