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Education Panel's Proposal Could Shake Up Testing In Oregon Schools

Top education officials in Oregon are proposing what could be a seismic shift in how public schools use tests.

A year ago, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s education team quietly created a 28-member panel of teachers and administrators to work on the issue. After a year of private meetings the group is ready to reveal their recommendations.

Students have complained about taking standardized tests for - well, forever. And testing experts have also increasingly expressed concern about high-stakes exams.

Rick Stiggins used to run a Portland-based assessment firm. He says students wind up questioning themselves.

“They’re answering questions like: ‘can I learn this, or am I just too dense?’ or ‘is learning this worth the energy I’m going to have to expend?’ Or think about the struggling learner - ‘is trying to learn this worth the risk that I might fail again, in public?’.”

Some proposals in the report put Oregon into the middle of a national debate about new tests tied to the Common Core standards.

For years, federal officials have required annual state tests to hold schools accountable. The Obama Administration also wants states to use the exam results to help evaluate teachers.

But Hanna Vaandering, president of Oregon’s statewide teachers’ union and the work group’s co-leader, says “It’s really, really wrong.

“Anyone who’s in education knows that the way we’ve been using standardized tests - attaching the high stakes - is wrong for students.”

Nancy Golden visited Earl Boyles Elementary School and dropped by a preschool class.

Nancy Golden visited Earl Boyles Elementary School and dropped by a preschool class.

Michael Clapp/OPB

The work group wouldn’t drop Oregon’s new Common Core exam, called “Smarter Balanced.” But, the group recommends against using results from that test to judge schools, or evaluate teachers - while the state emphasizes and upgrades other kinds of assessment.

Federal officials would have to approve that.

The group’s other co-leader is Oregon Chief Education Officer, Nancy Golden.

Golden says, “I think this is really about balance.”

The balance Golden is seeking would reduce the emphasis on end-of-year state tests, and at the same time increase the role of in-class assessment.

Co-leader, Hanna Vaandering, says teachers assess students during class constantly, in ways students barely notice.

“Every two to three minutes, you’re assessing your students, where they are with the assignments you’re giving to get feedback from them.”

These in-classroom assessments are a main thread through all 12 recommendations in the group’s report. Vaandering says assessment is part of a teaching cycle.

“‘What did you learn in this?’ As an educator, you look at that, you see what your students know, the next day you can come back and provide further instruction.”

But, the report argues, Oregon has to improve. These checks for knowledge aren’t necessarily valid, reliable, or unbiased. That requires training, says the assessment group’s advisor, Rick Stiggins.

“Teachers spend a quarter to a third of their time involved in assessment-related activities, for which the vast majority have not been trained. It’s very frequently the case across the country that teacher preparation programs are devoid of any relevant, helpful, assessment training.”

The group calls for what’s called “assessment literacy” for teachers, but also administrators, school boards, parents - and students.

Chief education officer, Nancy Golden, came to support the idea of a “Student Bill of Rights.”

“I think it’s absolutely right on that students should know and understand the purpose of assessment, what the learning targets are, what it means to get a score, what to do, if you didn’t do as well as you want to do.”

Advisor, Rick Stiggins, argues that students will learn better, if they know what’s expected of them.

“Our motto is kids can hit any target that they can see and will hold still for them.”

Another recommendation is to audit time spent on testing. Some proposals could be costly - like new technology for high-quality assessments, and training for teachers. It’s money well spent, says teachers’ union leader Hanna Vaandering.

“We’ve been spending millions of dollars on high-stakes, standardized tests. This is a better way. We should invest those funds in the better way, instead of what currently is taking away from student learning.”

The recommendations are now headed out to education groups and lawmakers, for feedback.