Schools Too Much Testing (copy)

In an editorial a few weeks ago, we mentioned a proposal from Rep. Sherrie Sprenger of Scio that would essentially block the Legislature and the state Board of Education from enacting any new legislation or rules regarding public education.

Sprenger understands that her bill doesn't stand a chance of surviving the session: For starters, it's unconstitutional because it binds future sessions of the Legislature.

But as we work through the latest batch of educational changes coming from the federal government and the state Department of Education, we'd be lying if we said we weren't sympathetic to the motivations behind Sprenger's House Bill 3208.

Sprenger's doomed measure came to mind last week as we read about the state's plans to scratch the so-called Smarter Balanced tests for high school juniors in the 2018-19 school years in favor of a test to be named later. (It might be, for example, the SAT or ACT, which a number of schools already allow all students to take, regardless of their college plans.) Students in third through eighth grade will continue to take the Smarter Balanced tests. 

If it seems to you just yesterday that the state replaced the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills with the Smarter Balanced tests, you're not far off the mark. Oregon began using the Smarter Balanced tests in spring 2015.

The state Department of Education agreed to adopt the Smarter Balanced tests after adopting the Common Core State Standards, a series of national standards in reading and math.

But the Smarter Balanced tests were controversial from the start. For starters, they were harder than the Oregon tests, so teachers had to prepare for the likelihood that many more students would fail the test. They also required several days to complete, and teachers (and students) complained that they took time away from instruction and related activities. In some school districts, so many students opted out of the test that participation dropped below the 95 percent federal threshold. They also cost districts considerably more money.

The change in tests was part of the new Every Student Succeeds Act; Oregon submitted its plans under the new act this week to the U.S. Department of Education. The state also plans to shift how it evaluates schools, and will judge them on a wider range of factors than just reading and math scores and graduation rates. The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, gives states greater flexibility in working with struggling students. That added degree of local control generally is a good thing.

But, at this point, can you blame parents or students or educators for being a little weary of the constant state of change in their schools? And how can parents assess the state of the schools if the measuring stick keeps changing? (This is part of the reason, by the way, that there's been so much focus lately on graduation rates: It's an important number to track and it's relatively easy to follow.) 

In her testimony on behalf of her bill, Sprenger repeated a story she had heard from a school administrator about an in-service day that included a briefing on new educational changes for a group that included both veteran and younger teachers. A younger teacher expressed doubt about the school's ability to implement one of the changes.

"Oh, don't worry about it," a veteran teacher responded. "It'll be gone next year."

It seems as if Oregon schools are particularly susceptible to that "flavor-of-the-month" syndrome. Obviously, we shouldn't foreclose the chance to make needed reforms to our public schools. But there's something to be said for picking the right course in the first place and then sticking with it. Let's hope Oregon schools are moving in that direction. 


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