Testing the common core

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Testing the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards have been in local classrooms since 2010, but now they finally matter. Sort of.

The standards were adopted by Oregon about four years ago without major fanfare or debate. Designed to benchmark when students should acquire certain skills and knowledge, the Common Core was produced by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The effort was intended to raise the rigor of public schools and create a benchmark for comparing the performance of different states. But, there’s no way to know whether an Oregon student who aces a test here would be simply mediocre or perhaps off the charts on a standardized test in Massachusetts.

Students have been learning from increasingly Common Core-aligned lessons over the past four years, but during that time, the state’s standardized tests, the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or OAKS, haven’t been tied to the Common Core. That changes this year, with the adoption of the computer-based Smarter Balanced Assessment, which will test students on language arts and math in Oregon and potentially more than 20 other states.

Because the tests are tougher than OAKS and unfamiliar to students, the Oregon Department of Education expects around 65 percent of test takers to fail the exams their first year. Furthermore, test scores matter for graduation as students can use them to demonstrate nine “essential skills” required before earning a diploma.

So will 65 percent of seniors fail to don a cap and gown? Not quite, according to Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Ron Wilkinson.

“There will be plenty of other avenues to graduation,” Wilkinson said.

Most of this year’s seniors have already had the chance to demonstrate the essential skills on OAKS exams they took previously in high school.

For those who haven’t, the state offers alternative paths to demonstrate the skills, especially for students who struggle on standardized tests. Even more, to show the skills, a student will need only to earn a score on Smarter Balanced that is equivalent to the old passing mark on OAKS, an equivalency the state is working to determine, but which ODE has said is likely to fall below what will eventually become a passing score on the new test.

Wilkinson characterized the determination of equivalent scores as “comparing apples to oranges,” as OAKS and Smarter Balanced are designed to test different abilities and skills.

“Anytime you change the assessments, we know the results will change,” Wilkinson said. “If you’re a parent, you need to look at all the data and not just one assessment to determine whether or not your student is going to be successful or your school is successful. Talk to your teachers, and ask about some of the other assessments we have.”

The future of testing could get even more complicated if opposition to the Common Core continues to grow. Nationally, while a majority of states are still using the standards, some have begun repealing them, including Indiana, Florida and South Carolina. In Oregon, the state’s teachers union has called for their implementation to be delayed, a request the Oregon Department of Education rejected in May.

Opposition has grown locally, too. Bob Perry, a member of the Redmond School Board, leads a group opposed to the standards and travels the state giving presentations on what he sees as problems with the Common Core. According to Perry, there’s no research that suggests having a national set of standards improves achievement, and the new standards may encourage teachers to “teach to the test.”

In a newsletter, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dennis Richardson signaled his opposition to the Common Core, writing, “Gifted students will be bored, students who already dislike school will be even more inclined to skip, and students with obstacles to learning will simply be unable to succeed.”

Wilkinson disagrees, saying the tougher standards do not spell disaster for students.

“There’s a focus more and more on critical thinking and problem-solving skills,” he said. “These areas have been a focus of our district for over a decade, and we would hope our kids will be able to perform well on these measures.”

Jefferson County School District Superintendent Rick Molitor took a similar stance, saying holding back on implementation would do more harm than good.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work and preparing for this,” he said. “It’s more rigorous and there are still some things we need to do as a state, but the Common Core State Standards are just standards, just like we’ve always had. We should be concerned about the rigor, but you can also flip that, and say we need to be concerned about how we are doing compared to other states.”

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