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Campaign claims 'tests are designed for students to fail' and urges more high school juniors to opt out



REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - LOHS Student Union members include (from left) Shaheen Safari, Jack McLean, Blake Mindemann, Haley Bertelsen, Farah Alkayed and Claire Torkelson.Nearly 30 Lake Oswego High School juniors have opted out of Smarter Balanced Assessment testing this spring — enough to lower the school’s performance rating from “elite” to “good” — and now they’re encouraging their classmates to do the same.

Leaders of the LOHS Student Union, which is not a school-affiliated organization, say their mission is to put a stop to standardized tests like the ones created by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Last week, they mailed letters to the parents of more than 300 LOHS juniors, urging them to opt out and including a link to an opt-out form they’d created.

“It’s not that we want to cause trouble for the school district or the parents or anything,” said Shaheen Safari, a junior and Student Union member. “It’s just what we personally believe in. We’re exercising our democratic right to speak our voice.”

The Student Union evolved from a series of stories on the front page of the March 13 issue of Lake Views, the LOHS student newspaper. The coverage included an opinion piece by all six editors headlined “Everyone, opt out now,” a news story about opt-out efforts across the country and a local story that quoted faculty, administrators and teacher union president Laura Paxson Kluthe.

“These tests are being foisted on teachers and students,” Paxson Kluthe told the newspaper.

The coverage also included step-by-step instructions on how to opt out.

“Opting out is a private action, allowing status- and appearance-focused Oswegans to resist in an environment that contemporarily antagonizes political action,” said Daniel Vogel, an LOHS junior and co-editor-in-chief of Lake Views.

Students in grades three through eight and high school juniors are scheduled to take the SBAC tests this spring. The tests involve more in-depth problem solving than previous assessments, and 30-40 percent of Oregon students are expected to meet the new standards, according to state Department of Education spokeswoman Crystal Greene.

SBAC’s assessments align with Common Core State Standards, which were formally introduced in Oregon this school year. They replace the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) tests in math and English. The Student Union campaign is in full swing now because juniors are scheduled to take the SBAC English Language Arts tests in April and the math tests in May. Science standards are still tested in the OAKS format but eventually will transition to SBAC.

A school’s performance rating is linked to its implementation of SBAC, and one of the criteria for a top score is student participation of 94.5 percent. On the five-point rating scale, enough LOHS students have opted out to drop the school from a five to a four. A lower rating affects a school’s image, Greene said, because some people use the rankings when deciding whether they will move to a particular neighborhood.

For LOHS junior Farah Alkayed, that’s not a good enough reason to take the new tests.

“We think it’s more important to create change in our education and educate people about (SBAC) than to be concerned with our school’s ranking,” Alkayed said.

SBAC tests focus more on analytical thinking, real-world problem solving and communication than the previous tests. Students must not only answer the questions, but also explain how they reached their conclusions.

“It’s one thing to be taught how to do things, to be taught in the right way, but this is teaching people how to think,” said Lake Views reporter Blake Mindemann, an LOHS junior and Student Union member.

The test results will not be visible on students’ records, unless they use them instead of the SAT, ACT or PSAT to meet graduation requirements. Still, junior Claire Torkelson said SBAC is a test “designed for students to fail.”

“I know that a lot of the administration, in central office at least, is protecting Common Core,” said Torkelson, a Student Union member. “But as a student, trying to learn and switch to Common Core this year has been extremely difficult for me. In math, I’ve always been an A-plus student and now I’m barely keeping a C.”

School district Superintendent Heather Beck said she is confident students will perform well on the SBAC tests.

“The score should not be interpreted as ‘pass/fail,’ but rather as personalized information for students to focus on areas of opportunity and areas of acceleration,” Beck said.

Vogel said he came up with the idea for the front-page coverage in Lake Views to raise awareness about SBAC and Common Core. In addition to the editorial and opt-out instructions, the stories provided details about added costs for the testing and the loss of in-class instructional time. English teacher Andrea Dunn told the paper she’ll have to cut a unit she usually teaches because of time devoted to test-taking.

“I can’t explain why they have to lose this,” Dunn said.

One Lake Views article said it will cost LOHS $3,000 to hire substitute teachers while students are taking the tests. LOHS is the only school that is using substitutes to cover classes while teachers are proctoring the tests, according to Joe Morelock, the district’s executive director of secondary education, but he said he can’t verify the figure in the article because the subs have not been hired yet.

Morelock said SBAC will cost the district nothing to implement because the state always provides assessments at no cost. SBAC does require the use of headphones and the district has purchased 845 of them at a cost of $5,239, he said, but those can be used for more than one year. And many students will bring their own headphones.

“There are no additional costs beyond those,” Morelock said. “SBAC is not more expensive than any other online system we’ve used in the past.”

Although the Lake Views articles offer insight into the SBAC debate, Vogel said the students didn’t think the stories would spark enough change. That’s why the Student Union was formed, he said, and the opt-out letter campaign was one of its first actions.

“Opting out is a lot easier than holding rallies or encouraging students to walk out of the tests, and students/parents cannot be punished for opting out,” he said. “That’s not to say we’ve ruled out the possibility of walkouts or rallies. Opting out allows us to gauge support for further actions.”

Learn more

For more information on SBAC, visit www.ode.state.or.us/wma/teachlearn/testing/admin/asmt_exemption_faq.pdf or www.smarterbalanced.org/resources-events/faqs.

To view the Lake Views opt-out stories, visit www.lohslakeviews.com.

About Common Core and SBAC

The idea behind Common Core originated from an effort to keep the U.S. in line 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 K-12 students should understand and be able to do in math and reading.

Several states since have dropped Common Core because of the controversy regarding the efficacy of the material. Half of the states — including Oregon — use Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortiums’ tests, while half use another type of standardized assessments, but Common Core is the standard curriculum.

State-level officials have been active in the standards’ development and Common Core is voluntary for states to adopt, but the federal government offers an incentive. Adopting standards such as linking teacher evaluations to tests is one way to qualify for waivers to No Child Left Behind requirements. The teacher evaluation requirement has been waived for a year.

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