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'Common Core': Oregon Schools' Biggest Change You've Never Heard Of

Oregon schools wrapped up statewide testing Wednesday. For students who thought those tests were tough, here’s a reality check: tougher tests are coming.

The State Board of Education has approved Reading and Math tests tied directly to higher achievement standards sweeping the country, called “the Common Core.”

The tests are a work in progress and are still two years off. But hundreds of Oregon students and teachers have already tried the new “Smarter Balanced” assessment.

It might be the biggest change to public schools you haven’t heard of. Nearly every state in the country — including Oregon — has adopted a new set of national standards called “The Common Core.”

Unlike “No Child Left Behind,” this didn’t come through Congress. State-level officials put it together — though the Obama Administration is on board.

Rob Saxton, Superintendent of the Oregon Department of Education

Rob Saxton, Superintendent of the Oregon Department of Education

Oregon Department of Education

Rob Saxton, the superintendent of Oregon’s education department, “They clearly like that set of standards and think it’s an appropriate set of standards, nationally.”

Saxton says Common Core states can get waivers and grants.

“They are rewarding states for having made that choice. I guess I would also argue that were Oregon to say ‘We’re not going to educate our kids at this standard’ — we would become something of an educational backwater.”

Oregon took the next step last week. The State Board of Education voted to replace one high stakes standardized test with a wonky name, with another one. 

Out: the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or OAKS. In: “Smarter Balanced.”

The new tests are a work in progress. They require students to show higher-level skills, like critical thinking.  They use new media, like video, for students to analyze.

Over the last few months, a few dozen Oregon schools tried it out.
David Beasley, superintendent of the Gaston District in western Washington County, says “Well, I’d like to say we volunteered, but we didn’t.”

Gaston High principal, Mike Durbin

Gaston High principal, Mike Durbin

Rob Manning/OPB

His district’s 6th graders tried out math, and 11th graders, the high school reading test.

Gaston High principal, Mike Durbin, says the test seems less scary, the more familiar it gets.

“When we first looked at the Smarter Balanced, and we looked at sample questions and the concepts it was scary, to be honest with you. It was like ‘ooh’.”

But the consensus among teachers and students is that it is really hard — even for high-achieving students, like Gaston junior, Amber Meeks.

“I liked that there was a writing segment on there, but I think that sometimes the test was just, overwhelming, because it was such a big change.,” Meeks said.

Gaston language arts teacher Maddy Anderson

Gaston language arts teacher Maddy Anderson

Rob Manning/OPB

Language Arts teacher Maddy Anderson recalls one exercise where students were asked to read an article, and then navigate a menu of possible answers.

“So they were given 26 sentences and they had to choose the seven or eight sentences that best summarized the article. Granted those seven or eight didn’t necessarily need to go in any specific order, but the sheer quantity of choices, I think can be overwhelming to students.”

Over in the grade school, the tests made it clear teachers will have to bone up on algebra, for sixth graders.

But elementary principal Yvonne Rauche says test developers need to realize that when younger students are overwhelmed, they may give up.

“I have some students – who were not strong students, just kind of put their head down. And sort of you had to encourage them to just move along.”

Some students, like sixth grader Darius Davis, prefer the new test over the old one.

“Both of them are tests – and no one likes tests. But I definitely thought it was more interesting, because it was more interactive than the OAKS, where you just have to pick one of the four answers that they gave you — you have to describe your answer and stuff, but it was definitely much harder,” he said.

Students and teachers in Gaston are frustrated they won’t be getting test results. Those are just for the test makers. But if a test doesn’t count — it might be less helpful to developers.

Rob Manning/OPB

Christian Waters, a Gaston High junior, needed some reward for his effort, “I would’ve thought a lot more into it, if I knew I was going to be graded on it. Like, I thought I was going to be graded on it, when it first started, and it was going to be just like an OAKS test. Then when I was told it wasn’t going to be graded, I thought, ‘OK, I’m just going to skip through this then.’ ”

State officials plan a bigger pilot test of Smarter Balanced next year. The new test will count for the first time in Spring 2015.

State Superintendent Rob Saxton is setting really low expectations.

“We’re typically 75 to 88 somewhere in there — percent of students meet or exceeds, on any Oregon assessment test. I think when this kicks in, it could be as low as 35 percent.”

In other words, Saxton predicts nearly two-thirds of Oregon students will fail the Smarter Balanced exams — at least in the first year or two.

But the Gaston superintendent, David Beasley says that’s not the only reason for concern.

“Because of the length and the way the test is scored, it’s going to be an inordinately expensive test for us to administer — and to prepare. I think the state of Oregon is going to be kind of shell-shocked when they find out what the bill is,” he said.

Officials say the current OAKS test may be the least expensive in the country, at $13 a student. Smarter Balanced can cost as much as $27 per student.

The multiple-choice answers on the OAKS can be scored by computers. The more complex student responses on the new test require human graders.

But John Cronin with the assessment researchers, Northwest Education Association, says that’s changing. Computers can judge some elements of writing — like spelling and grammar.

“They can evaluate the sophistication of the vocabulary that a student may be using in their response. Now what they can’t evaluate as easily is whether they’re using the correct vocabulary.”

Oregon officials say using artificial intelligence to do automated scoring is part of a national debate that’s far from settled.

But the tests are just part of the cost.

Colleen Mileham, with the teachers’ union, says her teachers need training, too.

“Our investment and our support has to be in helping those teachers implement. Standards do not increase student achievement. Teaching and learning and instruction increase student achievement.”

There’s a bill in the Legislature to spend $55 million on a new teaching network, to match instruction to the new standards.

Teachers tend to support high standards and using student data to guide instruction. But Gaston superintendent David Beasley says testing can go too far.

“In eastern Oregon, we have a saying that cattle get bigger because you feed them, not because you weigh them.”

Students have protested standardized tests in a number of states, including in Oregon.

Oregon students need certain Reading and Math scores to graduate, though work samples can be used, instead.

At a recent protest at Portland’s Cleveland High, Junior Ian Jackson said Smarter Balanced is a step backwards.

“It’s going to take more time, it’s going to cost the schools more money, and then the worst part is if a student fails that test, if they can’t provide a work sample, as they can now with OAKS to graduate - since it’s a graduation requirement, you’re going to see graduation rates plummet.”

Superintendent Saxton says the State Board of Education isn’t planning to change graduation requirements. But he’s asked for a review of the requirements over the next year or more.

In two years, students will take Smarter Balanced tests — that count — for the first time.

Sample Items and Performance — Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium

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