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Changes to curriculum and state tests have some talking about opting out

Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Oswego School District Executive Director of Secondary Education Joe Morelock said that with Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortiums new Common Core-aligned tests, Schools, principals and teachers will be better able to target a students individual needs for their education.Controversial new curriculum has arrived in Lake Oswego classrooms and new state standardized tests are coming this spring, but local parents say they aren’t happy about the way math and English now will be taught or how students’ progress will be measured.

And some say they’re ready to opt out.

“I’m not the authority on how to opt out, but if we were still in the public schools, my kids would not be taking that test,” says Laura Templin, who moved her children to private school.

Templin and other parents are worried about the difficulty of the new Common Core State Standards curriculum and the way it will be presented. Others say the use of federal funds to develop the curriculum gives the federal government control over what should be decided locally. And some are concerned that teachers will simply teach to the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests — especially since they will be evaluated in part on students’ scores.

Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Heather Beck stands by the new curriculum, saying it will serve students well. And even if Common Core does teach to tests, she says, it’s better than not teaching students how to pass standardized assessments. (See “Beck defends Common Core,” The Review, Sept. 25.)

But parents like Templin aren’t convinced.

“If you’re tying (the tests) to teacher evaluations, then they’re teaching to that test,” she says, “and it really ties the hands of teachers and school districts, even in terms of how they’re going to lay out a curriculum.”Photo Credit: SUBMITTED GRAPHIC - The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortiums map shows its member states. The test will be fully implemented in all member states this spring. Some schools are adopting a different standardized test called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Opting out

Common Core curriculum is already in place, but students in Oregon don’t necessarily have to take the SBAC tests in spring 2015. State law says students may be excused from any “learning activity” to accommodate “students’ disabilities or religious beliefs.”

Though a parent’s objections may not be about religion, Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman Crystal Greene says the “beliefs” part of the law can be broadly interpreted. With the approval of local school board and school personnel, an alternative activity can be put in place of the testing.

“All they need to do is demonstrate their skills,” Greene says, “which they can do in a number of ways,” such as taking the ACT or SAT tests.

The drawback, Greene says, is that if enough kids opt out, it could damage a school district’s reputation by bringing down its state report card rating.

The groups Say No to Common Core and Common Core Critics have created a national “Opt Out & Refuse the Test” campaign, claiming the federal government violated the 10th Amendment to the Constitution by exercising control over education. That power should reside with individual states, the groups say, and their goal is to have “every single child in the United States of America opt out of the federally mandated, high-stakes testing.”

Say No to Common Core’s website,, includes opt-out guides for each state that has adopted the new standards and tests, including Oregon. Stop Common Core pages also are prevalent on Facebook, presenting similar information.Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Heather Beck, who joined the district this summer says, Common Core standards are more narrow and go deeper into content than the old standards.

But so far, opting out of state testing has not been that common here.

In the Lake Oswego School District, for example, no students opted out in the 2012-13 or 2013-14 school years. In the Riverdale School District, two students opted out in 2012-13 and four in 2013-14; in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, none opted out in 2012-13 and nine in 2013-14.

At the state level in 2012-13, 161 students opted out of at least one state test. Last year, that number rose to 250.

“To put this in context,” Greene says, “last year there were over 567,000 students enrolled in Oregon schools.”

But those opt-out numbers could grow as the backlash against Common Core and the SBAC tests increases. And there are other ways to circumvent assessments besides opting out, with parents like Templin opting for private school.

She says the Common Core methods of teaching math that she’s seen are convoluted, and she’s heard that young kids have brought home math problems so difficult that their parents struggled to help them.

Tim Morris, another Lake Oswego parent, says he can see why many people may have reservations. He is not opting his kids out of the tests and says he believes most kids understand the assessments are different and will take time to figure out.

“But that being said, we do need to ensure that the school district does its part by focusing on instruction and preparation without creating a high-stakes, high-stress environment in the classroom,” Morris says.

Riverdale School District Superintendent Terry Brandon says he has a few concerns, too.

“We’re watching very carefully as to what the tests require of kids and what they require of teachers, and we’re also concerned about the time it would take to administer,” he says. “It varies by grade level, but there are some that appear to take two or three times as much time” as the previous math and English assessments.

One challenge Brandon foresees is that it will be difficult to gauge student improvement from last school year to this one, because the old and new tests are so different.

Like the old tests, the new assessments might still be called OAKS rather than Smarter Balanced Assessment, since that’s just the name of the consortium instrumental in creating the tests. But Joe Morelock, Lake Oswego School District’s executive director of secondary education, says there is a key difference: The new tests focus more on student growth than achievement, he says, and that change will be a boon.

“Schools, principals and teachers will be better able to target a student’s individual needs for their education,” Morelock says.Photo Credit: REVIEW PHOTO: JILLIAN DALEY - Lake Oswego School District Superintendent Heather Beck last week gave a presentation on Common Core to all the districts School Advisory Committees, which are parent groups.

Evaluation pressure

Beck says the Lake Oswego School District is supporting teachers, giving them additional time this year to assess how students are adapting to the new curriculum. Meanwhile, the state is also looking to lessen the pressure on teachers when it comes to their own evaluations.

Greene says Oregon is asking the U.S. Department of Education for a one-year waiver to the requirement for teacher evaluations to be linked to student test performance.

“Next year, we will have had a year of the tests, so we’ll know what reasonable goals are,” Greene says.

Some parents say teachers should not be evaluated based on any test’s results, and others say the changes are asking a lot of educators.

“We’re taxing our teachers with a new curriculum, new materials and a new approach,” says Morris, who adds that he has confidence in teachers but not in the state’s ability to administer the changes.

“This implementation is a hugely complicated and technical undertaking,” he says. “There are still a lot of unresolved issues, both with the substance of the tests as well as the readiness of our IT infrastructure. After the Cover Oregon debacle, it’s clear how badly the implementation of these large-scale projects can go. I just don’t know if the state is up to it.”

To offer parents insight into the process — and some assurance — Oregon Department of Education officials regularly post announcements to the ODE website ( about the new tests through the series “Assessment and Accountability Update.” A Sept. 25 update mentions items such as online practice tests arriving at the end of October and trouble with browsers.

Common Core

Long before the debate, the idea behind Common Core originated from an effort to keep the U.S. competitive academically with other developed nations. Washington, D.C., and 45 states agreed to use Common Core to institute consistent academic standards nationwide, spelling out what students in Photo Credit: SUBMITTED GRAPHIC - Here's a sample question from one of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortiums math tests. The tests align with Common Core State Standards.kindergarten through 12th grade should understand and be able to do in math and reading. Four states since have dropped Common Core because of the controversy. Half of the states use one type of standardized assessments and half use another, but Common Core is the standard curriculum.

State-level officials have been active in the standards’ development. Common Core is voluntary for states to adopt, but the federal government offers an incentive, Greene says. Adopting standards such as linking teacher evaluations to tests is one way to qualify for waivers to No Child Left Behind requirements. That’s got some parents bristling.

“I don’t think parents realize what an overreach this is of the federal government into the local public schools,” Templin says. “Local schools were always meant to be funded by local dollars with curriculum being decided at the local level.”STICKNEY

At the local level, West Linn-Wilsonville Deputy Superintendent Jane Stickney says her school district is “just going forward with our strong curriculum ... and when we get to the assessment part, we’ll do that as required.”

Riverdale Grade School Principal Joanna Tobin says the groundwork for Common Core standards and the new assessments already is in place, and she thinks all will go well when the SBAC tests are launched this spring.

“At least right now, I don’t see Smarter Balanced as a massive transition for us,” Tobin says.

For her part, Lake Oswego’s Beck urges parents to disregard politics and focus on the benefits of Common Core.

“Everybody wants reform, but nobody wants anything to change,” Beck says. “But we have to really be analytical in thinking about what are the important leverage points that are going to best benefit our children. Common Core standards are more narrow and go deeper into content than the old standards. It asks children to think more critically and to do more authentic problem solving than the old standards.”

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By Jillian Daley
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