Standardized state tests have been around for over 50 years. They've had opposition for nearly as long. Oregon's “Smarter Balanced” assessments of the past three years spawned a strong opt-out movement. Some of the tests' flaws and hiccups have been fixed. Let's look at the work that remains to be done.
Nationalized state testing began in 1965 as part of President Johnson's “War on Poverty,” to promote equality in education. Over time, the consequences for sub-par performances grew. Since No Child Left Behind, and now with Common Core standards, there's a threat of federal penalties for low scores.
[clip from The Simpsons] “Now I don't want you to worry class, these tests will have no effect on your grades. They merely determine your future social status and financial success ... if any.”
“The Simpsons” reflects widespread public opinion. Kathleen Jeskey is a sixth grade teacher in Canby and one of the founders of Oregon Save Our Schools, a group that opposes the current testing program:
Jeskey: “To use a standardized test to determine the success of a school, the success of a student. You can't assess everything with one test.”
Her group doesn't want to get rid of state tests entirely.
Charis McGaughy is Assistant Superintendent for Instruction with Eugene 4J Schools. She says as a parent:
McGaughy: “The results of the Smarter Balanced assessment help me know how my student is doing in a comparison on a trajectory to be college and career ready and and how they're doing amongst their cohort.”
Brian Flick is Director of Teaching and Learning at the Bethel School District. He agrees the tests have merit, but:
Flick: “When the new Common Core state standards came out, Bethel didn't have any curriculum that was aligned.”
He says it was hard to have teachers learn new material—twice--they had to use transitional content for two years. Because of the shaky start, Oregon along with New York, Washington and Colorado had very high numbers of students forgoing tests. Charis McGaughy:
McGaughy: “I see the history of the opt out movement as a natural reaction to the overemphasis on high stakes testing. This was an absolutely predictable response.”
Jeskey: “In coalition with all kinds of other groups, I think one of our biggest successes was getting the opt out bill passed.”
Kathleen Jeskey points to House Bill 2655, which cleared the Oregon legislature in 2015. It allows opting out of tests without citing a reason of disability or religion. McGaughy acknowledges the thousands who abstained from testing:
McGaughy: “The opt out movement has really helped deepen the conversation and awareness of the issues in the community.”
Bethel's Flick cautions the anti-test movement has backfired in some ways. He says their highest opt outs are from high school juniors who have taken college admissions tests:
Flick: “In Bethel's case, we had some of our strongest students academically not taking that test, which impacts your overall passing rate.”
He says report cards then reflect poorly on schools, which may affect families' decisions on where to live. Low turnout may also jeopardize federal funding, and certainly adds more paperwork.
It's generally understood junior year is grueling. Mary Anderson is Director of Assessment at the Oregon Department of Education.
Anderson: “Eleventh grade is intense. You've got this crush of tests. And we've got students that are taking some of their heaviest course load that same year.”
Superintendents from Eugene, Springfield and Portland wrote the state in 2016, asking that the ACT and SAT be able to serve as the 11th grade state test. The ODE is working on the change.
Some claim Smarter Balanced questions are biased. Anderson says because it's an electronic, adaptive test, change is as easy as the click of a keyboard:
Anderson: “If we see huge differences in student performance on a specific question, and it crosses a threshold, that item's reevaluated, and if it can't be rewritten, it's pulled.”
Kathleen Jeskey of Oregon Save Our Schools is skeptical:
Jeskey: “I've heard them say those words. I haven't seen any evidence of those words becoming a reality.”
Initially, the massive federally-imposed program left teachers and parents feeling powerless. Lately, there's a push for state, and even district-level choice. Jeskey likes that idea:
Jeskey: “The local school board is accountable to the public and that means parents, and if the local school board makes decisions that the community doesn't like, they will choose new school board members.”
Grassroots efforts have brought attention to some of the test's shortcomings. The administration has gotten smoother and more refinements are in the works. Mary Anderson says they're cooperating with other groups to reduce test time and increase local control.
Anderson: “I think that the shift in what we want as a system that's more balanced and the involvement from other educational partners, I really feel optimistic, in terms of we want very much the same thing.”
Anderson and other leaders hope enough progress has been made that parents and students decide to opt back in to the tests, while continuing to offer feedback and effect change in other ways.
This report is part of a series on the future of public education funded by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.
Note: After this story aired, Oregon Save Our Schools clarified their position, stating they do not see a need for annual state standardized tests:
"We would like to see students assessed using authentic classroom assessments created by teachers. While there may be a use for standardized tests to determine such things as whether an individual student has a learning disability, [we do not] favor the widespread use of standardized tests in the way they have been used over the last 20 years, to rank students and determine school quality or teacher effectiveness."