Education officials in Oregon and Washington, D.C., have had their differences over the years when it comes to standardized testing. The debate was effectively shelved last spring when COVID-19 shuttered school buildings, sent a half million Oregon school children home to learn, and led officials to suspend tests.
But this year is up in the air. The Oregon Department of Education submitted a waiver request to its federal counterparts on Jan. 22, two days after the inauguration of President Joe Biden. But almost two months later — and with less than three months until summer break — the Biden administration still hasn’t filled in the blank on Oregon’s testing question.
State education director Colt Gill delivered a lengthy presentation to the State Board of Education Thursday on a range of topics. When he got to the subject of standardized testing, he audibly sighed.
“Um, wanted to give you an update on our assessment waiver,” Gill said. “We have not received an answer from the [U.S.] Department of Education. That has been challenging for us as we’re heading deep into the spring.”
Typically, states are required to test all students in grades three through eight and once again in high school, using approved assessments. In Oregon, spending countless school hours to administer long, challenging assessments to hundreds of thousands of students each year has been widely unpopular. Many educators suggest the exams are agonizing for many students and not much help for instruction. In 2015, the tests’ unpopularity led Oregon legislators to approve one of the most permissive “opt-out” laws in the country — allowing families to avoid the tests without citing a specific objection.
That law drew warnings from the U.S. Department of Education about possible consequences if large numbers of students were to avoid the tests. The pressure put Oregon officials in the uncomfortable position of trying to follow a federal testing mandate as well as a state law letting students avoid exams.
But now it’s the state of Oregon asking to opt every student out of the exams as they return to school buildings after more than a year away.
“Especially as some are coming into our schools for the first time,” Gill told state board members Thursday, “that will be a hybrid model where they may get as few as 15 or 16 school days with their teachers in-person.
“Really, the last thing we want to do is use a quarter of that time, like four of those 16 days, to put them back in front of a computer while they’re at school, and taking an assessment that isn’t likely to give us good information.”
Gill said state officials are meeting with the U.S. Department of Education Friday and hoping to get a definitive answer by next week.
Last month, federal education officials released updated guidance emphasizing “the importance of flexibility” in how states administer tests this year. The memo suggested extending the testing window, which according to Gill’s presentation to state board members, could go as far as the beginning of next school year. The U.S. education department also suggested making tests shorter, and allowing them to be administered remotely.
But Gill hopes federal officials will allow Oregon to wait a full year from now to administer standardized tests again.
“Our hope is to suspend summative assessments until spring of 2022, then shorten assessments and possibly shift to some kind of sampling model,” according to Gill’s slide presentation to board members.
By sampling, Gill isn’t asking federal education officials for permission to test a representative sample of students. In an email to OPB, Gill said testing a subset of students “is not likely acceptable to the USED.” Instead, he anticipates having students take only parts of tests, which he said would be a valid use of the assessment.
“Another scenario has each student participate but they receive only a sampling of the questions on the assessment,” Gill said. “The assessment would not be used for individual performance or accountability, which is not what the assessment is designed to measure. However, it could be used for system-wide and school-wide measures.”
Making such changes would require approval of the U.S. Department of Education. So would Gill’s more immediate goal to pause testing entirely for now.
Gill told state board members that about 195,000 Oregon students are now receiving some in-person instruction — more than triple the number from December. Tens of thousands more could return in the coming weeks, as large districts like Portland and Beaverton anticipate hybrid learning to start. And if Gill has his way, testing will not be part of the lesson plans for them.
“Assessing students and having them spend time in school on a computer is not the best use of their time with teachers this spring,” Gill said.