State goes ahead with Common Core tests

Local educators’ opinions on rigorous standardized tests run from cautious to outraged

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Published May 18, 2014 at 12:01AM

Last week, the Oregon Department of Education refused a request by the state’s teachers union to delay the implementation of new, more rigorous standardized tests. Locally, superintendents stand behind the state’s decision, while opinions among other education leaders range from cautious to outraged.

The new assessments, which will go through field tests at some Central Oregon schools this week, are being developed with federal help by a multistate group under the title Smarter Balanced. The tests are pegged to the controversial Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by most states. The standards, which benchmark when students should acquire certain skills and knowledge, were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in an effort to make American students more competitive with students from other nations.

Recently, however, many states have debated delaying or even dropping the standards, with Indiana officially dropping Common Core after earlier adopting the standards. In Oregon, the standards were adopted in 2010, and students will begin taking Smarter Balanced tests in spring 2015.

In a statement, the Oregon Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers, called for the testing to be delayed, noting not enough is known about the test’s ability to measure learning.

Rob Saxton, the state’s deputy superintendent, rejected that request.

“Something we keep being told is, if we do delay, then we’re going to lose millions of dollars,” OEA President Hanna Vaandering said in an interview. “But our focus is not on millions of dollars; it’s on doing what’s right for our students.”

Vaandering added that she questioned whether parents would support spending millions on a test that the state has projected 65 percent of students will fail.

“Teachers have absolutely not had enough time to prepare,” Vaandering said. “Some districts have had professional development; some have not. We had 650 educators come together to talk about this issue, and we believed very strongly that we are not ready.”

Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Ron Wilkinson thinks his district is ready, and that parents and students will understand the lower pass rates if they are prepared for the results.

“I am certainly sensitive to the fact that teachers are feeling huge pressure, and part of my job is to continue to put things in context for our community,” Wilkinson said. “We try to do that whenever we share data, telling people what the limitations are around it. Oregon adopted Common Core four years ago, and the real key to the assessments is that they are aligned to the standards we now have. Four years into having the standards, it’s time to have the assessment aligned to those standards so we can see how we are doing.”

Nonetheless, Wilkinson emphasized that the implementation of Smarter Balanced assessments will be a learning process, and ideally the state would be able to continue using Oregon’s current standardized test so it could better understand Smarter Balanced results. However, Wilkinson noted, the state doesn’t have the money for such an option.

Redmond School District Superintendent Mike McIntosh reiterated Wilkinson’s points, noting that a drop in scores is expected any time you switch assessments.

“The short version is, I don’t think we have any option,” McIntosh added. “I guess I can be a little frank in that I’m not totally excited about taking this debate to the public school system, which is expected to implement it. It’s not mine to debate. That’s why we have a judicial system, why we have public office elections — that’s where it is. I’m not going to engage in a conversation that would put me against my superiors or the state of Oregon.”

Bob Perry, a Redmond school board member, is vehemently opposed to Common Core, leading presentations across the region on what he sees as the pitfalls of the standards and assessments. Perry doesn’t want the state to delay the test, but rather abandon the test and the standards to which it is tied.

“What I think is interesting is now I find myself, as a school board member and as someone politically involved, on the same side as the teachers union, which is pretty unusual,” Perry said. “But what the heck, at least it’s an opportunity to get a slowdown and call time out.”

Perry objects to what he describes as federal intrusion into state education systems, pointing out how the federal government has linked major federal grants to adoption of the standards. Additionally, Perry criticizes the cost of implementation, the lack of public input into the adoption and the unproven effectiveness of the standards and assessments.

“The education community is almost being forced to teach to the test, and that doesn’t work for every kid,” Perry said. “There are so many differences not compensated for when trying to teach one thing to a diverse group of learners. It robs creativity from kids and teachers.”

Perry said he does support increasing the rigor of Oregon’s standards, but that he doesn’t believe Common Core is the best way to do that.

“Massachusetts had tougher standards. Oregon could have gone there and learned from them,” Perry said. “As a federation, each state is a lab for good ideas. Massachusetts had the best students; why did we need to go with a national thing?”

The president of Bend-La Pine’s teachers union, Bob Markland, takes a more cautious approach, sympathizing with the desire to slow things down without calling for the state to abandon assessments tied to Common Core.

“We’re not opposed to the Smarter Balanced testing idea, but I think we share the same concerns as OEA,” Markland said. “How effective is this going to be? How long will it take until we know how effective it is? Everybody’s a little in the dark about what it will look like and mean.”

Markland said he supports an approach that slowly implements testing, allowing the state to develop feedback and to “understand what a student’s results really mean.” Nonetheless, he was adamant that education shouldn’t be centered around tests, regardless of what standards they are tied to.

“We didn’t get to be the social, political and economic leader of the world because we were focused on test scores,” Markland said. “We focused on students and having opportunities for kids to get involved in activities and their communities. If student success is supposed to look like a test score, that’s a sad commentary on where public education is going.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com