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Education — Bills would require evaluation, limit uses; high-level panel proposes own changes

Oregon’s debate about student testing has moved from the classroom to the capitol building.

Several bills considered recently by the House Education Committee would require state officials to evaluate all tests, limit the use or disclosure of test results, or clarify the right of students to opt out of the tests.

Perhaps in anticipation of them, a high-level group released a dozen draft recommendations at the start of the hearing. Among them are a state audit of all tests used in schools, notice to students about the purpose of tests and how results will be used, and limits on the use of results from new tests that students will take this spring. PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Students caught in the 
middle -
Several bills considered recently by the House Education Committee would require state officials to evaluate all tests, limit the use or disclosure of test results, or clarify the right of students to opt out of the tests.

Those tests, known as Smarter Balanced Assessment, will be in connection with the Common Core education standards that Oregon and 42 other states have adopted. The Oregon Board of Education adopted them in 2010.

“One thing I have heard loud and clear is that there is over-testing,” said Nancy Golden, the state’s chief education officer, and formerly the Springfield schools superintendent.

“We’ve been in a place where there has been a real focus on assessment — and that is good,” she said. “The group believes we are all accountable. But on the other hand, we have focused just on one side of the pendulum.”

The Senate Education Committee also heard about student testing, although it has no bills pending before it.

Growth of testing

Although debate about student testing is nothing new, testing grew in prominence during the 1990s — the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, which covers English, math, science and social sciences, began in 1999 — and the 2001 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind requires states to conduct annual assessments.

The requirements have been modified somewhat in practice under President Barack Obama — 43 states have obtained waivers — some schools under that law had to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” toward grade-level achievement goals by 2014 or take remedial steps, such as extra help or allowing students to attend different schools.

Oregon now conducts OAKS English and math tests every year for students in grades 3 through 8, and in grade 11. English proficiency tests are conducted for about 60,000 students, about 10 percent of Oregon’s public school population.

Science tests are conducted less frequently, and social science tests are voluntary.

As part of a waiver issued by the federal Department of Education from requirements of the 2001 law, Oregon has agreed to use test results not only to grade schools but also evaluate teachers.

Hanna Vaandering, president of the Oregon Education Association (ODE), said it’s all too much.

“The current use of assessments in our schools is fundamentally flawed,” said Vaandering, a physical education teacher at Ridgewood Elementary School in Beaverton. “From the billions of dollars we as a nation are spending on high-stakes standardized testing, to students who have so much anxiety … to the culture of failure we are about to unfold with the implementation of Smarter Balanced, we are definitely on the wrong track.”

Vaandering is co-leader of a high-level group calling for changes, which she praised. Her comments, however, were in support of one of the bills calling for an evaluation of all student tests and barring use of results from the latest Smarter Balanced Assessment tests in rating individual schools.

Common complaint

Complaints about the pressures involved in Oregon’s high-stakes testing are not limited by party or philosophy.

The stress on students and teachers “does not sound like education to me,” said Rep. Carl Wilson (R-Grants Pass), who returned to the Legislature after an absence of 12 years.

“It seems like something I do not recognize. Education has to be more simple than this (testing) is portrayed.”

Wilson sits on the House Education Committee, as does Rep. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) chief sponsor of three of the bills heard by the committee.

“I am concerned about the tests themselves and whether there is any validity that they tell us anything we want to know,” said Frederick, a former teacher and Portland Public Schools spokesman. “We have gone down this rabbit hole before.”

Frederick said while some of the recommendations by the high-level group are laudable, state education officials could have moved years earlier to involve teachers in the assessment process.

He said he is most concerned if Oregon proceeds with the Smarter Balanced Assessment tests, which some officials project will have high failure rates because they will be more difficult than the current tests.

“The headline is going to say: 60 percent of students fail test,” Frederick said. “If that is the headline, it will not matter whether we delay it a little bit. The image that will be on the minds of the public, students and teachers is that they are failures. Where else do we set up a situation where 60 to 70 percent of the people fail?”

Opposing views

Parents have lined up on opposite sides of the testing debate.

Betsy Salter of Portland is the mother of a ninth grade student, Maggie, who she opted out of state tests in grades 7 and 8. But she said it was not easy — and should be made easier through one of two pending bills.

“It is so hard to get information about parental rights to opt out of the state assessments,” she said in testimony to the House committee. “I learned about it a few years ago because I was concerned about how Oregon’s new education reforms … were similar to what was happening elsewhere around the country.”

But William Porter of Portland, father of a seventh grade student who will take the Smarter Balanced test this spring, opposes opt-outs for state tests. He also has a second grade student, who will take the tests next year.

“I think Smarter Balanced will be an improvement and I think it’s really important for me as a parent to have an objective report of how my child and my child’s school are doing every year,” he said in his testimony.

As a pilot project, 4.2 million students — including 24,000 in Oregon — took the Smarter Balance tests in 2014. The total includes all students in California.

Experts debate

The Senate committee heard from Yong Zhao, a professor of education at the University of Oregon and a critic of many of the U.S. education system changes that have taken place since the 1990s.

Many of them have been in response to U.S. students faring relatively poorly in comparison with other nations.

“If test scores are any indication of the quality of education, I would say American education is not in serious decline — it is not getting worse — because it has always been bad,” he said. “But test scores do not predict a country’s future.”

Zhao said the United States, despite its rankings, remains the pre-eminent world economy because of less measurable factors such as confidence, creativity and entrepreneurship.

“We should define education not by better outcomes or better assessment, but by following the child,” he said.

Rob Saxton, deputy state schools superintendent and ODE leader, said assessments do prove useful. He mentioned the third-grade reading standard, which 68 percent of Oregon students met in 2014 — and which correlates almost exactly with Oregon’s high-school completion rate.

If you cannot read, Saxton said, you cannot participate fully in the information age.

For fifth-grade math, 60 percent met the standard in 2014, up from 44 percent in 2008; for eighth-grade math, 63 percent, up from 51 percent in 2008.

Before Saxton took the job in July 2012, he was superintendent in Tigard-Tualatin, where third-grade reading achievement moved from 83 percent in 2005 to 93.3 percent in 2012 — and the achievement gap with racial and ethnic minorities dropped from 40 to 20 percentage points.

When his agency detects schools whose students need extra help as determined by assessments, Saxton said, “when we support them, their outcomes change.”

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