SALEM — The landscape of statewide assessments — currently Smarter Balanced Assessments — is in question after Gov. Kate Brown signed a law allowing parents to more easily opt children out.
The law is not without controversy, as roughly $140 million in federal funding statewide is dependent on at least 95 percent of students participating in the standardized tests.
Last year, only about 10 students were excused from the tests in Central School District, said Buzz Brazeau, superintendent.
Whether or not the new law will affect participation rates next year is difficult to say.
“It’s hard for me to tell,” he said. “I would hope (we don’t get more opting out), but I think it depends on how well people are informed.”
For some, including Central Education Association president and CHS English teacher Ben Gorman, the new law is a win for educators and parents.
“My guess is that, when parents realize that the test data isn’t actually used to help their individual student, many will decide any activity in which their child learns something is preferable to an unnecessary test,” Gorman said.
Kimber Townsend is a mother of two Central students, one was a junior last year and the other attended Talmadge Middle School. She opted both of her children out of Smarter Balanced last year, calling it a family decision.
A couple factors contributed to that decision.
“I work in the College of Education at Western Oregon University,” she said. “I hear conversations about standardized testing from faculty, the dean and administration. How do we feel about it, how will this affect our students (at WOU). Standardized testing goes against every best practice that we teach our student teachers.”
Standardized tests are developed by people who make tests, not by educators, Townsend said.
“With more and more blended classrooms, all learning levels and skill levels in the same room, standardized testing doesn’t work,” she said. “They’re not standardized students.”
Perhaps a bigger motive behind opting out her students was because of the missed classroom time.
“When my student says to me, these are challenging classes, what happens if I miss four days — they actually pull them (students) out and coach them how to pass,” Townsend said. “Four days of testing, plus prep time.”
Brazeau said Smarter Balanced took roughly 11,500 hours of testing time last year.
Gorman said the time spent testing gets in the way of teaching.
“We have to give up significant instructional time to testing every year,” he said. “Combine that with one of the shortest school years in the country, and Oregon’s kids get almost a full year less instruction (over the course of 12 years) than students from most states.”
Michelle Johnstone, Dallas School District’s new superintendent, said she agrees that students spend too much time taking state assessments.
“The thing that worries me is how much time it takes,” she said, adding it’s counterintuitive to requirements schools increase time students spend in the classroom.
That’s especially true when the results aren’t provided to the districts in a timely manner, she said.
That being said, she understands the need for testing in some form to make sure teachers and districts are doing their job educating children.
“Kids have to be measured somehow,” she said. “Now, do we have to do it excessively? No.”
Previous to Dallas, Johnstone was a superintendent in Colorado, where the Legislature also allowed for more opt outs.
The federal government put the state on notice that it could lose funding if too many students weren’t tested.
She’s worried the same thing will happen in Oregon.
“It makes me a little nervous to say parents can opt out for any reason,” she said, adding:
“It puts districts in a really bad spot.”
The threat of losing funding should enough parents in Oregon opt out of the testing is real, but it may not stay that way.
Rep. Paul Evans (District 20) said the U.S. Congress passed an updated version of No Child Left Behind that has greater latitude for the states without financial penalty to pull out completely from standardized tests.
“The way we wrote the bill, if Congress takes any money away, it requires us to rethink that policy,” Evans said. “But yes, we’re very concerned about long-term consequences.”
That said, Evans was critical of standardized tests.
“They changed how you succeed,” he said of Congress. “We can’t afford to give special education kids what they need to succeed; we can’t afford to give ELL (English Language Learners) what they need to succeed, but we’re going to say there’s one standard, and just have wishful thinking that everyone will get there, without giving them the funding to get them there. Yeah, standards are great, but you don’t chop off four legs of a frog and tell it to jump, and then wonder why it can’t jump.”
Brazeau said he hopes to see universities use results from Smarter Balanced to replace placement tests to determine what level of math and English a freshman would be in.
“That’s the part that sometimes gets lost,” he said. “We talk about having to take the state tests. We always had to take tests to get into school. Students have to take the ACT or SAT to get into college. I would hope someday to see the Smarter Balanced, SAT and ACT folks kind of get together so we aren’t doing the same thing over and over.”
Townsend said she knows a lot of parents who didn’t get their letters to opt out students turned in on time because they weren’t notified in a timely manner.
“There was quite a handful in my circle that either didn’t get their letter in on time, or for whatever reason, got denials,” Townsend said. “I can guarantee they’ll be opting out, and a large percentage of students whose parents are from higher education fields, parents who are educators themselves who are opting out.”
Gorman noted that the new law will help school districts be more consistent when it comes to approving or disapproving requests to opt out.
Brazeau said he hopes the community sticks with the district in the standardized testing journey.
“I hope we can get our community to hang with us while we hang with the state and find out which tests are valuable and which ones aren’t,” he said. “The more opportunities they have to gather information, the better decisions they make.”