Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



Gone are the answer bubble sheets and the sharpened No. 2 pencils.

Today’s standardized test-takers sit in front of a computer to listen to audio clips, click on incorrect sentences in a paragraph, and evaluate the relevance of various websites.

Students across Oregon are just starting to take a new standardized test now through the end of the school year. A critical vote from the Portland Public Schools board last week pushes back against the state requirements to test every student, but it ultimately may be powerless to stop it.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment is a harder, more sophisticated test for the modern age, calibrated to the Common Core standards adopted in Oregon and 42 other states over the past five years.

Portland Public Schools' assessment office tells the Portland Tribune that around 483 students have submitted opt-out forms this year. While a significant jump from mid-February's report of 45 opt-out forms — particularly since exemptions are only granted for religious or disability reasons — that still only represents less than 2 percent of the more than 25,000 students required to take Smarter Balanced. If any school has more than 5.5 percent of students overall or in any category opt out, the schools' rating takes a hit.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Critics of the new standardized test - such as those at this Feb. 17 protest - say the new Smarter Balanced Assessment tests the wrong things and puts too much stress on schools.

Vocal critics in Portland say the Smarter Balanced test has numerous problems: linguistic and cultural barriers to students of color; seven to eight hours of test time; monopolization of computer labs, libraries and other resources for weeks during testing; an anticipated 60-70 percent rate of not meeting the higher standards this first year; uncertainty over data privacy and security; as well as fear and stress among teachers, students and parents.

“I’ve been pointing out since last year that it’s questionable whether these tests are valid, whether the way they are being scored is valid,” says Hyung Nam angrily. The Wilson High School teacher says he has found evidence on Craigslist that the companies administering the tests are hiring temp workers for as little as $10.77 an hour to grade tests, something he says he earns $40 an hour to do.

Stella Augustine, a ninth-grader at Lincoln High School, says the damage already has been done.

“Fear and stress have already been instilled in significant amounts of students, parents and teachers,” Augustine says.

As the PPS board heard over and over again about how troubling the new test was, they voted on a resolution March 9 urging the state to downplay the significance of these assessments, in part through doing randomized statistical sampling instead of testing every student.

PPS Director Matt Morton says with all the uncertainty over Smarter Balanced, it would be less expensive and more logical to do a soft launch of the test.

“Now that we’re talking about this, I have to tell you I’m really feeling like the smart money is on why do we have to do this with all students across the district?” Morton said at the March 9 meeting. Director Tom Koehler, who introduced the resolution, argued the statistical sampling would be cheaper and relieve some of the psychological pressure of the test.

Director Greg Belisle wondered why the board couldn’t just decide itself to do a random sample assessment this year.

“We’d lose our money,” replied Director Steve Buel, a staunch critic of standardized tests. “I’d vote for that though.”

Although Oregon children went through a test run of the Smarter Balanced test last year, the results of those tests have not been made public, and the Oregon Department of Education says they don’t plan to release them. Since this is the first year that schools' scores will be posted, Oregon’s Chief Education Officer Nancy Golden has called for a one-year moratorium on consequences for schools.

In the end, the board voted to ask the state of Oregon to do a random sample this year, instead of the full rollout.

“From our lips to the state’s ears, right?” said Director Ruth Adkins.

Federal rules tie state's hands

Not so much. Crystal Greene is a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Education. She says the reason they don’t do statistical samples harkens back to the ghost of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. That piece of 2002 legislation requiring — among other things — that every child be tested, is no longer enforced because Congress didn’t renew it. The Obama administration began allowing states to apply for waivers in 2012. There are still rules for being granted a waiver though.

“If Oregon moved to a sampling of students taking the summative assessment, that would be viewed by the U.S. Department of Education as willful noncompliance with the Federal assessment requirements and put all our state’s Federal funds — totaling at least $325.5 million per year — in severe jeopardy, in addition to putting our waiver at risk,” Greene said in an email. “If Oregon lost our waiver (as Washington did), all our schools would be considered failing under ESEA (more commonly known as No Child Left Behind).”

ESEA stands for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Congress is currently trying to rewrite the law based in part on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's recommendations for expanding access to preschool and reducing the achievement gap.

Greene says that the model Portland proposes wouldn’t work across the state, either. Of Oregon’s 197 school districts, more than half contain fewer than 1,000 students. That is too few for a scientifically valid sample — especially for underserved minority populations.

Data drives policy

PPS board member Buel argues the tests are money-making devices that serve to boost profits for testing companies and book publishers.

His bid to study the roll-out of Smarter Balanced in PPS — how much time and money was spent and whether the assessment was effective — was defeated.

The state's contract with American Institutes for Research (AIR) is about $8.2 million, of which $5.2 million is for Smarter Balanced test delivery and scoring. AIR is a not-for-profit corporation based in Washington D.C.

At the Chalkboard Project, a statewide consortium of philanthropic foundations focused on education, they say the smart money is on creating some sort of standardized test.

“Without sort of a common measure, we worry about the level of transparency,” Chalkboard’s Vice President of Educational Policy Frank Caropelo says.

Caropelo says the data gleaned from tests and comparing year-over-year assessments is invaluable for charting a course forward and getting better results. He is not, however, willing to hang his hat on Smarter Balanced being the right answer.

“We’re in the period of transition,” Caropelo says. “Ultimately, though, if Smarter Balanced turns out to be what it is supposed to be... it is going to give us information about how we are teaching to the new standards.”

Greene, from the Oregon Department of Education, agrees.

“We need to take this short-term setback because higher standards will help our students in the long run.”

See earlier stories:

Teachers, board member blast state testing as abusive, profiteering

Are Oregon students tested too much?

Does test ask kindergarteners the wrong questions?

Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?

Take a practice Smarter Balanced Assessment online by logging in as "guest," or answer some of these questions taken from fifth-grade math and English tests.

1. A student wrote a sentence that contains errors in punctuation. Click to highlight the two words that should be followed by a comma.

Mrs. Lacey stated “Although we had searched the entire room three times we never could find the missing stapler.”

2. Read the sentence and answer the question.

Enzio was especially hungry for any details about America.

What effect does the author create by using the phrase “hungry for any details”?

Select two options:

A. an empty feeling

B. a sense of curiosity

C. a longing for change

D. a mood of uncertainty

E. a feeling of anticipation

F. an atmosphere of anxiety

3. Which number is equal to 10 to the 4th power?

A. 100

B. 1,000

C. 10,000

D. 100,000

4. Enter the quotient. 3125 ÷ 25 =

5. Connor is buying tickets to a concert. The concert he and his friends want to see costs $4.75 per ticket. Connor has $26.00 total.

What is the greatest number of tickets Connor can buy?

A. 4

B. 5

C. 6

D. 7

Answers: 1. stated & times; 2. B and E; 3. C; 4. 125; 5. B

By Shasta Kearns Moore
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