By Abby Spegman

The Bulletin

Amid all the political controversy surrounding the Common Core standards and the arrival of the Smarter Balanced test in Oregon last year, you’d be excused if you missed the news that the state also has new science standards and plans to roll out a new science test in 2018.

The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by 26 states, and 18 have signed on to use them. They were adopted in Oregon in 2014 and are being phased in now. Just as important as content are methods of scientific inquiry and cross-cutting concepts such as cause and effect or stability and change. The standards also emphasize hands-on learning.

While the state debuted the Smarter Balanced test last year for English language arts and math, it is still using the old Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or OAKS, for science. Federal law requires schools test students in science at least once in third through fifth grade, once in sixth through ninth grade and once in 10th through 12th grade; that will continue under the new federal education law.

The four-year delay between adopting the standards and introducing a new test is typical, said Derek Brown, director of assessment at the Oregon Department of Education. While the science standards have not faced as much pushback as Common Core, the new test could bring more attention to the issue.

With Common Core, Brown said, “As we got closer and closer to the assessment, the conversation changed a bit.”

It is too soon to know what the new science test will look like, but Brown said it will likely be more complex than the current multiple-choice format. The Smarter Balanced math test, for instance, gives students open-ended problems and has them explain their reasoning.

“Because there is the expectation of higher-level thinking skills and the opportunity for students to demonstrate what they know, we would expect that the test would be more than a straight multiple-choice test, which is what we have now,” he said.

The Smarter Balanced test came out of a multi-state consortium, a model now being considered for the science test. Oregon officials are in informal talks with five states including Idaho and Washington about the possibility of working together as a way to share resources and cut down on the expense.

“One of the challenges and why we don’t have better tests is that multiple-choice tests are really cheap to write and score,” said Bill Penuel, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder who studies science education.

Penuel was one of the authors of a 2014 National Research Council report on developing tests for the Next Generation standards, which recommended states move slowly. Districts need time to get to know the new standards and adapt their teaching strategies and curriculum, Penuel said, but they run into trouble when testing is the priority.

“I think we tend to see these in isolation from one another, (but) they’re really legs of a stool that have to work together,” he said. “It takes a while to get them into alignment.”

Sara Trakselis is an eighth-grade science teacher at Pacific Crest Middle School in Bend. Her students took the OAKS last month, but she won’t pay much attention when the results are released later this year.

“I think it’s a miscommunication of what students are learning,” she said.

Instead, she is relying on results from tests she and other teachers have developed in line with the new standards, where students must interpret data, investigate patterns, create models and find explanations. They can’t just memorize the content, she said; they have to think like a scientist.

Based on her experience writing these tests, she said, the state has its work cut out for it.

“They’re harder to write and they’re harder to grade, but they’re better for the kids,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7837,