An American flag, a University of Oregon banner and posters with literary terms hang in the front of David Wilkinson’s room at Beaverton’s Westview High. Wilkinson is leading his 11th graders through a college admissions essay.
What’s different this year is that they’re judging the essay against a scoring guide — or “rubric” — for the new Smarter Balanced language exam. That’s the rigorous set of new tests in Oregon and 16 other states.
Younger students have already begun taking these new federally mandated Common Core tests. High schoolers will take them soon. The tests are designed to go deeper into students’ understanding of key concepts than previous standardized tests — and that means they take longer.
Smarter Balanced is meant to test both writing mechanics and the subtleties. It’s not the multiple-choice tests high schoolers are used to.
Westview junior, Brooke Garcelon, said not only is the test different, it also comes at a tough time. Oregon used to give a shorter and easier state test sophomore year. Garcelon’s a little stressed.
“Especially for juniors, because we have all those other tests. … The Smarter Balanced is kind of just a thing that’s been added on to all of that,” Garcelon said.
Smarter Balanced may take juniors nine hours — and that’s on top of the ACT, SAT and AP exams.
Gene Brunak, who teaches AP English at Madison High School in Portland, counts 20 hours of tests for some students. And, it’s anticipated many students won’t pass Smarter Balanced.
“We’re looking at May as being kind of like ‘Testing May,’” Brunak said. “What’s really happening for a Portland Public high school 11th grader is they’ll be taking a district-required ACT exam. That happens April 28th.”
That’s about the time the window opens for Smarter Balanced.
A month before high schoolers even take the tests, Brunak learned that the stress was affecting the mental health of one of his students.
“When she has free time, she’s always reading books that are not assigned, she’s just one of those dream kids,” Brunak said. “I just found out yesterday from a colleague that she’d been experiencing anxiety, because she read and also picked up on the fact that many students were going to struggle and perhaps fail, and she wasn’t taking that well.”
After his 20 years of teaching, Brunak said he knows the difference between a student whose feeling pushed academically versus a student who is experiencing anxiety that isn’t connected to learning.
“And for the first time, I felt like that reared its ugly head,” Brunak said.
Brunak suspects many students will put more effort into the SAT, ACT and other exams colleges look at than for Smarter Balanced, which is just one of three ways to achieve a graduation requirement.
State deputy superintendent Rob Saxton says Smarter Balanced has its strengths, but even he wonders about its length.
“To be honest with you, I wish the Smarter Balanced assessment were shorter, and I’m pushing the consortium right now to make it a shorter assessment. I think it takes too much time,” Saxton said.
Wilkinson, the Beaverton English teacher, said he’s uncomfortable with how testing and preparation is affecting class time.
“If I put all that together, it’s probably about a month of instruction,” Wilkinson said. “That’s a lot of time.”
It’s not lost time, Wilkinson said, but it means looking at English more in the context of a test. It might mean dropping a novel, or maybe less writing time.
Student poems cover the back wall of Wilkinson’s class. A boy writes about his dream of playing Major League Baseball. A girl fumes about the people who insist on guessing her ethnicity — and get it wrong. Another shares the grief of losing a grandparent. They’re handwritten. They measure self-improvement by erasure marks.