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More than 120 high schoolers have opted out, saying the exams are not the best measure of academic achievement

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Oswego High School senior Haley Bertelsen testifies about Smarter Balanced Assessment tests before the Lake Oswego School Board on Monday.Students, school board members and district administrators debated the merits of Smarter Balanced Assessment tests this week in the wake of an opt-out campaign that has seen at least 120 local students ask to forgo the exams.

Almost all of the opt-out requests have come from Lake Oswego High School, where a newly formed Student Union lists “an end to high-stakes testing” as one of its goals. No students in the district opted out of standardized tests in the previous two school years.

Student Union members told the Lake Oswego School Board on Monday that state testing is unnecessary when there are other ways of measuring academic achievement, that the tests reduce “human beings to numbers” and that educators have to “teach to the test.”

“You see, some of the best teachers I’ve ever had didn’t teach me how to take a test,” Haley Bertelsen said. “They taught me how to love learning. They taught me how to be brave and strong and how to have a voice and how to ask for more for my education, and I don’t see how Smarter Balanced or OAKS (Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) testing or any of the other hundreds of tests will do the same thing.”

Superintendent Heather Beck responded to the students’ comments, saying that while the Smarter Balanced tests will be different from previous math and English exams, the results will be used to benefit students.

“I would agree that if we don’t use test data to improve the specific needs for students, as well as for our system, then you’re right,” Beck said. “There would be no point in taking the test. But of course we use that data in ways to continuously improve our system and professional development for administrators and teachers, as well as to help individual students with what they’re learning.”REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Heather Beck listens to students testimony during the board meeting.

Bertelsen, a senior, said people all over the world are judged not on test scores but on art and other things that “are composed mostly of feelings and instincts.”

“What I don’t understand is why people think that reducing human beings to numbers is the only way to compare their academic success,” she said.

Measuring success

Students in grades three through eight and high school juniors will take Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests this month and in May. The tests are designed to measure whether students are meeting Common Core standards, which have been adopted by 43 states, four territories and the District of Columbia.

Those rigorous standards spell out what K-12 students should understand and be able to do in math and reading, and curriculum has been shifting for the past few years in an effort to help students be better prepared to meet them.

Depending on the subject and grade level, though, some estimates indicate that as many as 70 percent of students may not meet the new standards, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

“These results will represent a new baseline for our state,” said ODE spokeswoman Crystal Greene, “because it will be the first time we will be aligning our K-12 expectations to what it takes to be successful in college and the workplace.”

Beck said Monday that she thinks Lake Oswego students will perform well on the tests.

“I am not concerned that our kids are going to do poorly on this assessment,” she said. “I have been in and out of classrooms and have seen exemplary teaching all year long.”

By law, school districts must administer the tests. But they are not pass/fail exams — students are not punished if they do not prove in testing that they’ve met the standards — and test results will not be included in students’ records unless they use them instead of the SAT, ACT or PSAT to meet graduation requirements.

That’s all well and good, Student Union member Blake Mindemann told the board, but “I don’t think we need another congratulatory test.” The resources being put toward Smarter Balanced testing could be used to support lower-income schools, she said.

“These resources are being wasted on testing college-bound students from affluent communities, and I don’t know about you, but I feel guilty for being complicit in a system that celebrates the affluent few at the expense of the many,” said Mindemann, a junior.

School board member John Wendland said that with so many students opting out, district resources will have to be directed toward providing an alternate assessment.

“If everybody took the test, we would probably be spending less time and resources doing that,” Wendland said.

Just saying ‘no’

Opting out of Smarter Balanced exams is possible because of a state statute that allows students to bow out of curriculum by citing a disability or religious beliefs. For example, students can opt out of lessons about evolution because they believe in creationism.

School districts are required by state law to provide an alternate activity for students who do opt out. In the case of Smarter Balanced tests, that activity could involve writing a work sample that would count toward graduation requirements.

On Monday, Student Union member Daniel Vogel characterized that as “busywork.”REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - LOHS student Daniel Vogel shares his concerns about state standardized testing.

“I was told by LOHS administrators that if I declined to complete the alternative assignment and instead went to class, I would receive an in-school suspension,” said Vogel, who graduates this year but is technically a junior. “Think of the headline for that: ‘Student suspended for going to class.’ That doesn’t sound right to me.”

Vogel, who said he has a clean attendance record, said he plans to skip school during the tests in protest and not to do the alternate assignment.

Joe Morelock, the district’s executive director of secondary education, said if students do skip class on a test day, they will be required to take the test when they return or complete a make-up assignment.

In any case, Beck said that if not enough students participate, it will make it difficult for the district to get an accurate reading, statistically speaking, of student performance. That in turn would make it difficult to compare Lake Oswego with other districts throughout the state and across the country.

And in the long term, it could also affect Lake Oswego High School’s performance rating, which is linked to implementation of the SBAC tests. A long-standing criteria for a top score is student participation of 94.5 percent, and enough Laker juniors asked to opt out by the April 6 deadline to put an “elite” ranking in jeopardy.

However, ODE has asked the U.S. Department of Education for a one-year waiver on the “accountability system,” Greene said, which would give “schools and districts a break from school ratings.” If the waiver is approved, state-issued report cards will not include rankings this year.

‘Helping or hurting?’

PAXSON KLUTHEOne of the basic goals of Common Core is to keep the U.S. in line academically with other developed nations, and Lake Oswego Education Association President Laura Paxson Kluthe said in her Monday night presentation to the board that Smarter Balanced tests are akin to those that China uses.

She handed each board member a copy of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.” The book was written by Yong Zhao, who holds the first presidential chair at the University of Oregon, where he also serves as associate dean for global education and is a professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership.

WENDLAND“The book’s thesis is a simple one,” said Paxson Kluthe, who teaches social studies at LOHS. “Spoiler alert: High-stakes standardized tests serve to support authoritarian regimes like China’s and not democracies.”

Wendland said he’s heard from parents that teachers are supporting students not taking Smarter Balanced tests.

“Are you helping or hurting?” he asked Paxson Kluthe.

“I’m philosophically in agreement with the students,” she said, adding that many teachers sympathize with the Student Union. “But I don’t proselytize in my classroom.”

By Jillian Daley
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