Unfortunately, it seems that Lake Oswego School District is echoing the talking points put forward by our state and federal governments in order to maintain the status quo, which should by now be painfully obvious to all, is part of a corporate agenda that has nothing to do with what is good for children. Thanks to Ms. Rocca-Wolfe for trying to keep the community informed by responding to the propaganda.
In the December 11th issue of Lake Oswego School District newsletter, The Current, the District delivered what it called “background information on the Smarter Balanced state assessments, which students took last spring for the first time.” I have taught in the District for 15 years. As both a teacher and a parent with a child in public school, I have been grappling with the meaning and value of this new battery of tests. In reading the District’s missive, I was disconcerted to find not the “information” that it promised, but a hard sell of the assessments. This sales pitch left out important concerns that many teachers, parents and community members share about the tests. Indeed, it was just these concerns that led to the drafting and passage of House Bill 2655 this year, which requires school districts in the State of Oregon to provide parents information about the tests as well as of their right to opt out. Since I believe the District’s “informational” letter has obscured more than it clarifies, I have taken the liberty of offering some responses, from a teacher’s perspective, to the District’s assertions.
- The Smarter Balanced assessments are aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which were adopted by the Oregon State Board of Education in 2010. Lake Oswego School District curriculum, which is developed by district staff and approved by the Lake Oswego School Board, is also aligned to the Common Core State Standards.
These tests are part of what has become a dangerous move toward privatization in education. Taxpayer dollars are being sucked out of the public sector to fund millions of dollars of contracts with testing companies and their subcontractors to find our what TEACHERS can already tell administrators and parents more precisely and effectively than a raw score. Yet more money is spent to pay for the scoring of the non-multiple choice parts of the test, which is being done for hourly pay by workers of dubious qualifications, a practice that raises serious questions about the validity of student scores and undermines the status of TEACHERS as the best equipped and trained to evaluate student work.
- Unlike earlier state assessments, the Smarter Balanced assessments go beyond multiple-choice questions and include different types of questions that allow students to construct their own answers, better demonstrating their communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills.
These tests are decontextualized and, therefore, inauthentic. Real learning happens when we are curious, motivated, inspired or confused; in other words, learning happens when we have a good reason to inquire, investigate and problem solve. If we are lauding this test for its beyond-multiple-choice questions, you know who else creates assessments that “go beyond multiple choice questions and include different types of questions that allow students to construct their own answers, better demonstrating their communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills”? TEACHERS. Every single day.
There is already plenty of assessment happening in the classrooms, labs, auditoriums, studios and choir rooms of Lake Oswego schools. We TEACHERS have a wealth of information about our students. We know our students. We know their strengths. We know their weaknesses. And since we are humans, we can deal in nuance.
For example, a teacher can tell a parent: “Jill is always right on point in class discussions, but seems to lose her train of thought when she begins to write.” A teacher can tell a parent, “Jorge has an awesome command of addition when he uses manipulatives, but when he reads the abstract problem on a worksheet, he returns to guessing.” Why are these teacher- and classroom-based assessments superior to a standardized test like Smarter Balanced? On a standardized test, Jill would have failed to meet writing standards and Jorge would have failed to meet math standards. But a human teacher can recognize strengths, not just weaknesses, and can use those strengths to build a possible next step toward student learning growth. For Jill the teacher can have a classmate take notes on the board during class discussions, keeping an outline of class members’ points, so that when Jill begins to write she can refer back to her comments from the discussion. Jorge can be taught and encouraged to draw or make his own manipulatives on scratch paper so he can “see” the numbers. The point? Human TEACHERS can assess and address human learners more precisely and effectively than any standardized test.
- The purpose of the Smarter Balanced state assessments is to show individual student growth over time and to provide student-specific data that teachers can use to ensure each and every child is on track to reach goals for college and career readiness.
This statement assumes the validity of the test as a measure of college and career readiness. I would love to see evidence that this test has been held to scientific scrutiny, say a longitudinal study demonstrating that students who do well on SBAC do better in college and career. I have not seen such a study or any other research that bears out its validity.
Based on my experience with Smarter Balanced so far, I can see each of my students’ scores — this is the extent of the “student-specific data” available. After a number of years, teachers will be able to see whether students’ scores are rising, falling or plateauing — that is the extent of our access to “individual student growth over time.” But ask if we can see how students scored on individual questions or areas of focus (that is, the information that might actually inform our practice) and the answer is no, we cannot see that information. This test does not provide much information to teachers and the information it does provide is so opaque as to be useless.
Moreover, the content focus of these tests reflects only a fraction of the subjects we teach. By using these tests as the primary indicator of “college and career” readiness, our District is sending a message that only math and English matter, undermining the centrality and value of art, music, dance, theatre, athletics, history, foreign languages, and science.
- The data from state assessments is not used to judge students or evaluate teachers. Instead, the data provides important and valid information that benefits students by helping teachers improve individual pathways and target instruction to the needs of students who aren’t on track, as well as those who are ready for more advanced work.
Once again, this presumes, but does not demonstrate, the validity of the test. Once again, the test cannot help us target instruction because the test results are not broken down by skill or question. And once again, guess who can identify students who are not on track as well as those ready for more advanced work? TEACHERS! In fact, if you were to ask teachers at my school, “What do you most need to help student learning and success?”, we would say, “More support options for struggling students, please.” We know who our struggling students are; but we do not have adequate resources to help them.
- When all students in a grade level, program, or school take the assessment, we have better visibility to common areas of strength and weakness. This helps us focus time and resources on best instructional practices at all schools for all students.
It is unclear to me how Smarter Balanced can help us identify “common areas of strength or weakness” when each student is reduced to a score. These scores may tell us information about subgroups relative to other subgroups, but guess what? Teachers already know our English Language Learners (for example) need more support; what an inefficient and costly way to gather information. Isn’t it cheaper and more efficient to simply ask TEACHERS?
- The Smarter Balanced assessments use the same testing format as other performance-based assessments, including the PSAT, SAT and ACT. We believe that student familiarity with the Smarter Balanced format from a young age will be advantageous for those college entry exams.
This is not true. I took the Smarter Balanced practice test and it was not delivered in the same manner as the PSAT or the SAT. But even if this were true, by this reasoning, the District is proposing this test as practice for other tests. You know what else prepares kids to do well on exams like the PSAT, SAT and ACT? TEACHERS! Class curricula! What schools do every day by teaching math, science, reading, writing . . .
- When the Smarter Balanced assessments were introduced last year, there was concern that a more challenging test would be too difficult and stressful for students. This did not prove to be the case, as students across the district performed above expectations and well above state averages.
Whether this test is stressful and whether our students perform well on this test should not dictate whether we invest into it our valuable time and resources. What should dictate the investment of our time and resources is whether it provides a valuable experience for our students and whether it provides valuable information to teachers, students, administrators and parents. It does not. Additionally, it should be no surprise that our students did well on the tests. Outcomes on such tests are so strongly correlated with family income and educational attainment of parents that researchers have been able to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, the scores of populations of students based on census data alone. These tests reflect the complex impact of inequality in America, and to celebrate Lake Oswego’s high scores is to, in some fashion, celebrate our own privileged position relative to many other neighborhoods and cities across our state and the nation.
- On a national level, there has been discussion about the potential disadvantages of excessive “high-stakes” testing. The district recently completed an audit of the time required annually for state and national testing at all levels to ensure that costs do not outweigh benefits, and that tests provide useful information relative to student growth and instruction.
Reviewing this audit is not heartening. At a minimum, it looks like Lake Oswego High School students are being subjected to 80 hours of out-of-classroom assessments. One wishes the District’s audit had included some substantive questions for stakeholders. For students: “Were these tests valuable experiences? Did you gain insights into yourself as a learner? Were you provided new information about your own strengths? Weaknesses?” For parents: “Did the information you received about your child’s performance on these tests provide you valuable information? Did you gain new insights into your child’s strengths and weaknesses? Were your child’s scores the springboard for conversations with your child and your child’s teacher about the learning process and curriculum?” For teachers: “Have these tests provided you useful information about your students, your teaching practice or your curriculum?” Surely the answers to these questions matter as much as, if not more than, the number of hours students are testing; it is a shame these too were not part of the audit.