Saturday, October 3, 2015

Smarter Balanced Forum Reveals Weak Arguments of Test Supporters
By:  Kathleen Jeskey

On Thursday night, I attended a forum held by The Oregonian newspaper titled, "The Big Idea: Education and Test Anxiety". The event consisted of a panel of five: Derek Brown, Director of Assessment at Oregon Department of Education;  Toya Fick, Executive Director of Stand for Children; Lew Frederick, Democratic State Representative, House District 43 in Portland; Rob Saxton, Superintendent of Northwest Regional Educational Service District; and David Wilkinson, Westview High School Teacher.

 The event was structured so that people who wanted to ask questions were required to fill out a card and turn it in to an assistant, who then carried those cards to Erik Lukens and Helen Jung, Editorial and Commentary Editor and Associate Editor (respectively) from The Oregonian. They were the discussion facilitators. I sat near the front and watched as stacks of questions were turned in from the audience of about 150 people. They only got to about four of those questions. Having read many of the Oregonian's  editorials, which heavily favor continuing SBAC testing, and having attended a prior session with Rob Saxton and Derek Brown presenting about SBAC last February, I suspected that there would not be a lot of chance for the audience to speak. In preparation for that, I brought paper and a marker and made signs, which I held up discreetly to both the panel and the audience behind me during the presentation.

 The first thing that moved me to make a sign was when Mr. Saxton was asked what the price tag for SBAC was to Oregon. He stated that it was $27 million. That is far more than what OAKS cost, and far more than the originally predicted cost of SBAC. He also stated that due to some needed improvements to the test, we may need to spend more than that in coming years. That prompted my first sign. If $27 million is divided by the average beginning teacher's salary in Oregon (about $34,300) it shows that Oregon could hire 800 new teachers for the price of SBAC administration. And wouldn't it be great if some of those teachers could teach subjects that have been cut, like music, art, and PE?


There was some discussion around the length of the SBAC test. Derek Brown claimed that the SBAC takes less time than the old OAKS.


He stated that the math test takes about 2 and a half hours (a low estimate even according to SBAC: see pg. 34) and failed to mention the English Language Arts portion of the test. Brown explained further that while many students took up to three opportunities on OAKS, SBAC gives only one opportunity, which cuts the time for test taking.

 The truth is that only some students took multiple opportunities on OAKS: those who were still attempting to meet or those who had already met and were attempting to exceed the standards. The average time for OAKS was about 90 minutes for each exam, English Language Arts and Math. That adds up to three hours for both exams, per attempt. Thus, a student who met or exceeded the standard on the first attempt spent an average total of 3 hours testing. Only a student who took all three attempts, and on both exams, would spend an average of 9 hours. The average amount of time for a student to take both sections of SBAC, according to a survey of teachers done by the Washington Education Association, is around 8 hours. SBAC states the test will take an average of 7 hours.  And all students take those 7 or 8 hours of exams, not just a few students. One third grader at my school took 13 hours to complete the assessments. Most of my 6th graders were in the testing environment for 10 hours.


When Mr. Wilkinson raised these points, we were told by Mr. Brown that research was being done to improve the tests, including possibly shortening them.  I kept wondering...


I'm not the only one who's wondering that.

 The question of time came up again, not only about how long the test itself takes, but about how much time we are spending teaching to the test. Toya Fick asserted that if teachers were just using good instructional practices, it would follow that the students would do well on the test.  Mr. Wilkinson responded by explaining that although that sounded good in theory, many students were not as well versed in computer skills, depending on the availability of technology in their home or school, and that keyboarding skills were being required of children as young as third grade. This, along with unfamiliarity with the new testing interface, would require students to spend time getting acquainted with the interface and working on those pre-requisite skills in order to do their best on the test.  It is just not true that "good teaching" in the Language Arts and Math classrooms is enough.


Someone asked why we couldn't use sampling of students, why must every student be tested every year if the goal is systems accountability? We could maintain systems accountability with sampling, and it wouldn't be nearly as expensive.


I assert that one of the reasons, besides obtaining massive amounts of data on every single student, is that testing companies make more money if more tests are given.
Rob Saxton stated that we needed to test every student because if we didn't, parents would have no way of knowing how their children were doing in school.


There was then again insistence from Derek Brown that the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the American Institutes for Research (AIR) the test delivery system for Smarter Balanced, would be working on improving the tests so that the results would be more informative to parents and teachers, as well as making the tests shorter. At one point, Rob Saxton stated that Smarter Balanced was taking more time than OAKS, contradicting Brown's earlier statement about OAKS taking less time than SBAC.


Toya Fick questioned how we would know where our gaps in student learning are without these tests. I assert that we already know where the gaps lie. Derek Brown stated at the beginning of the forum that SBAC was revealing the same gaps for students that we have seen in the past: gaps based on ethnicity, status as an English Learner, Special Education status, and poverty. In fact, it appears that SBAC did a great job of measuring poverty in California. 
I question when we are going to actually do something about those gaps besides measure them.


Rob Saxton asked how we will know the needs of our students if we don't have these tests. How will we know what they need in order to achieve? (I thought back again to that $27 million.)


 Lew Frederick and David Wilkinson did a fabulous job of explaining why we don't need these very expensive tests, how they are not effective for the purposes they are being used for, how they are taking away a great deal of instructional time, narrowing the curriculum, and changing the focus of teaching and learning from student centered to test centered.

 Representative Frederick answered Ms. Fick's fear based statement that we could lose our federal money if too many people opt out by mentioning a number of states that, like Oregon,  have also been threatened by USDOE with loss of funds including Vermont and New York, neither of which has actually lost funding. Representative Fredrick also mentioned that he had recently been in DC and that neither the House or Senate versions of the ESEA, which are currently headed to a  joint committee for finalization, contain any penalty for opting out. Mercedes Schneider's research found the same.

 Representative Frederick also clarified that HB 2655 did not give parents the right to opt out, they already had that right. The bill merely created a consistent system for how opt out should be dealt with, as there was great disparity between Oregon districts, with some allowing parents to opt out easily while others were going so far as to question parents' religious exemption from testing. The bill, in fact, came about due to this problem. The bill will not "encourage" parents to opt out; parents were already opting out. It is the Common Core and the accompanying tests that are encouraging the Opt Out movement.

 Mr. Wilkinson mentioned the New Path assessment work that has been done by a number of Oregon teachers in partnership with the now disbanded Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) and the Governor's office during Mr. Saxton's tenure at ODE. Salam Noor, who currently holds the position of Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction (the position formerly held by Mr. Saxton) told members of Oregon Save Our Schools at a recent meeting that in order to continue work on that  more authentic method of assessing students, he would need to get his ODE staff on board.

 I wondered why the ODE staff wasn't already on board, since Mr. Saxton had participated in that work and attended meetings of that assessment work group. However, Mr. Saxton did insist that without the  Smarter Balanced Assessment he would not know how his child was doing in school.


 Maybe it's not surprising that he didn't get his staff on board with a project that not only seems to be a better way to assess students, but was a cooperative effort between teachers and the state that should be a standard practice, not an afterthought.
That work not only produced a plan for a better assessment system, but I'm guessing that work cost a lot of money as well. Now we're just going to ignore it and do SBAC harder?

 And we're back to my first sign.

 UPDATE: An audio recording of the event has been made available to me. Listen here:


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