Bethel School District Superintendent Colt Gill said new standardized tests in Oregon, known as “Smarter Balanced” exams, cut into a precious school resource: time.
“We have one of the shortest school years, and shortest school days across the entire country,” Gill said. “And we’re trying to teach students to those new standards, to the Common Core State Standards, which are much more rigorous — and we need time to do that.”
Every grade in middle school takes the state tests.
When instructor Nikki Suydam from Beaverton’s Five Oaks Middle School met with colleagues at a neighborhood café recently, testing time was on their minds.
“In addition to the amount of time it takes out of classes, the students don’t finish in a consistent bunch,” Suydam said. “And you really can’t move on, until the last straggler is finished.”
Suydam was doing something different for the next round.
“I am planning on introducing a project before — that the students can work on as they finish,” Suydam said. She added, with a laugh, “I’ve actually planned my curriculum around the test.”
But her Five Oaks colleague, Alicia Streit, said sometimes after students are done they have to stay and sit on the edge of the testing room.
“They can read a book, or do some work. But it can be really challenging to keep the middle-school students silent as we need to do, during the tests,” Streit said.
Additionally, when computers are tied up with tests, they’re not available for students who want them for projects. Streit recalled her students asking her to use them.
“‘Please, can we research Latin America, can we research?’” Streit said. “And I don’t know. I don’t know if we can do another research project this year, because the computer labs are so full already. It’s ironic, because one of our big pushes is technology in the classroom.”
“Yeah, I can’t get my kids in,” Ezell said.
“That means we have 1,100 students vying for one computer lab, and some computers in the library — for about four-and-a-half months,” responded Streit.
School administrators like Superintendent Gill said some problems are simply from the tests being brand new. Gill said Smarter Balanced has to improve if it’s eventually going to be used to judge Oregon schools and educators.
“We will make adjustments locally,” Gill said. “I am sure that Smarter Balanced itself and the state will be listening to feedback and making adjustments.”
Thousands of Oregon parents have had their kids opt out of the exams, including half the eligible students at Abernethy Elementary in Portland.
That will make test results less meaningful, but it opens up computers, said vice principal Sarah Jones.
“Which means especially the primary classes have been able to continue to use the computers for lessons, which has been really nice,” Jones said. “We’ve been able to minimize when the computers are sort of out-of-commission for testing.”
With so many students not testing, Abernethy runs classes for them. But it’s a balance.
“We can’t teach the opt-out students something that’s going to put them ahead of the kids who’ve tested, because then how do we catch up the kids who’ve tested?,” Jones explained. “Yet, we don’t want it to be a complete waste of time for the kids who’ve opted out, because one reason that parents opted out was the instructional time that kids are missing by taking the test.”
Abernethy’s answer found a compromise by having students do work related to the tests. During the 5th grade math test, the opt-out kids do math worksheets.
Teachers can’t help students with the tests, but instructor Lisa Kane is allowed to help kids in the worksheet room.
A student asked Kane about a fraction problem. Kane listened, and looked over the worksheet.
Like many schools, Abernethy won’t hit test participation targets. But Oregon also expects most students to fail the new exams.
Neither of those measures will count this school year.
Back at Five Oaks, the teachers are hearing not all 1,100 students will finish the tests. Students often miss school, there are only so many computers and hours in the day, and the Oregon school year is almost over.