Bend-La Pine Schools tests out new exams

Students learn how tough they are; district gets technology lesson

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

There are a lot of questions surrounding the new standardized tests Oregon students will take next year, but after some Bend-La Pine Schools got an early look, the district has learned one thing for sure — they won’t be using wireless keyboards.

Beginning next spring, Oregon’s current standardized tests, the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, better known as OAKS, will be replaced with the Smarter Balanced Assessment. The new tests are aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which sets benchmarks when students should acquire certain language arts and math skills.

The standards were intended to raise the rigor of state tests to a unified level and were widely adopted across the nation.

However, recently they have endured blowback on just how tough the standards and tests are, a trend that contributed to three states recently dropping the Common Core. Oregon, which adopted the standards in 2010, plans to go ahead with launching tests aligned to the tougher curriculum next spring, despite a plea from the state’s teachers union to back off. According to the union, the tests haven’t been studied thoroughly enough and the expected rate of failure is too high.

The field tests administered last month at five Bend-La Pine schools are meant to help the state decide what constitutes a passing score, though the cutoff score for graduation is expected to be lower than that for passing. Although nothing has been set, it is possible the state will attempt to correlate a graduating score on Smarter Balanced with a passing OAKS score. The Oregon Department of Education estimates that 35 to 40 percent of students will pass the tests the first year.

Despite the focus on scores, the local students who got an early peek at Smarter Balanced won’t know how they did, but the tests did offer the district a chance for a practice run administering the computer-based tests on multiple devices. Though OAKS was also administered on computers, difficulties did arise as the district experimented with new devices. At Highland Elementary, wireless Bluetooth keyboards routinely failed, stalling students attempting to complete the exam on the school’s iPads.

“They were losing connection with the iPads and it took maybe five minutes to get a student back up and running,” said Principal Paul Dean. “For kids to be successful, you can’t have them begin the test, start typing, and then all of a sudden the keyboard is unresponsive. They lose momentum with their thinking and writing.”

Shay Mikalson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instructional technology, said multiple models of keyboards were tested, and the district will not use wireless varieties when the tests count.

“The idea was to pilot a whole bunch of different options and see what worked,” Mikalson said, adding that all schools will have plug-in keyboards when the test is administered next school year.

At Summit High School, students who took the field test had no problem using keyboards that could attach to iPads. For Reno Holler, Summit’s dean of students, the goal was to motivate his students to get the best score they could get, even though the students will never know if they passed or failed.

“We just told them the truth, that this is going to be a test mandated by law,” Holler said. “It’s going to count for graduation next year, and you can help the state, they will be very interested in how you do. We told them what you say is going to impact how it’s rolled out next year. Once they caught on to the fact that they were part of this grand plan to help out, they were willing to focus.”

Holler said the feedback from students wasn’t too surprising.

“The biggest thing we heard was that this is harder,” he said. “We had a very interesting comment from a foreign exchange student from Switzerland, who said this test is almost exactly like the high school entrance exam they take in Switzerland.”

Given the difficulty of the test, Holler said his students gained an advantage by taking it this year, noting, “There’s a reason we have students take the PSAT before the SAT — it prepares them for the real thing.”

At Miller Elementary, where students used computers and had no major technical issues, students were mixed on the difficulty of the exam.

“Many students thought it was similar to OAKS, and some said some questions were more easy and others more hard,” said Student Services Coordinator Jennifer Healy

Healy noted the test came soon after other long tests, and some students seemed to get tired.

“The big piece we learned was that it takes perseverance from kids,” Healy said. “Students need the ability to focus for a long period of time, and we obviously have some teaching to do for content on the tests. We’re still in the learning process to figure out the best materials to use to teach the Common Core. But I think the test is excellent, and that the questions were thoughtful and meaty.”

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