By Kailey Fisicaro

The Bulletin

After Oregon students did slightly better in the second year of the state’s Smarter Balanced standardized tests, the most recent results show students’ performance declined during the 2016-17 school year, the third year of the test. Participation rates in Central Oregon school districts were also generally down across the board.

In 2014-15, the state switched to the Smarter Balanced tests, which are given to students in grades three through eight and 11 in math, science and English language arts. In 2016-17, 53.6 percent of Oregon students were proficient or better in English language arts, down from 55.2 percent in the previous school year, according to data released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education.

Oregon’s proficiency rates in math and science were also down from the school year before, as were many of Central Oregon school districts’ results.

Bend-La Pine Schools and Redmond, Sisters and Jefferson County school districts’ proficiency rates declined slightly in English, math and science from 2015-16 to 2016-17.

Crook County School District’s English and science proficiency results lowered slightly during the same period, but its math results improved slightly, from 33.8 percent to 34.3 percent.

The only bright spot in the testing was at Culver School District, where all of its proficiency rates improved several percentage points from 2015-16 to 2016-17. That district saw the greatest leap in math, where the percentage of students who were proficient increased from 33.1 percent to 42 percent.

But some have questioned whether the test results are fully representative of a district, because of the increasing number of students who chose not to take the optional test. Students can opt out of taking the test under a law that went into effect in January 2016. Before that, the practice was allowed only for religious or medical reasons.

The number of students who skip the test is especially high in Bend-La Pine high schools. School district officials have said that may be because students at that age are often more focused on college admissions tests and exams that can earn them college credit.

While participation rates were already low in many Bend-La Pine high schools in 2015-16, they plummeted even further in 2016-17, especially at La Pine High School. In 2015-16, about 80 percent of students tested in English and math. The following school year, no students tested in those subjects.

At Summit High School for the past two school years, only a handful of students have participated in any Smarter Balanced tests.

Even some Bend-La Pine School Board members have chosen to allow their children to skip the standardized test.

“It’s 15 hours of testing for my kids,” Board Chair Andy High said last month. “To be honest, we’ve opted out at the elementary level.”

High said in his experience, his children were given an alternate task in an area in which they might be struggling. For example, a student might be given fraction worksheets while the rest of the class took the Smarter Balanced tests. But in general, opting out is most common for 11th graders.

“We’re not seeing opt-out rates in the elementary level like high school,” High said.

The most recent data echoes that.

Oregon parents are sent a letter about not taking the Smarter Balanced tests. Local school districts send the letter, but it’s the same one statewide.

“It encourages you to opt out almost, but it says, ‘we really, really want you to take it,’” High said, which he acknowledged could be a confusing message for parents.

But High doesn’t believe he or other board members are sending a mixed message by allowing their children to opt out of the test, because they’re not discouraging other parents to do that. School board members understand why parents choose to opt out their children, High said.

High said there are changes to state testing that would make him less likely to opt out his children.

“One is time,” High said. “We shouldn’t need 15 to 20 hours to measure a student.”

He’d also like for students not to be the only ones measured.

“We need to find ways not just to measure students, but staff,” High said. “We need to make sure things are working — not to lower rigor. Not to make more kids pass.”

Bend-La Pine’s superintendent Shay Mikalson also spoke about Smarter Balanced opt-out rates in his district late last month.

Although Mikalson sees the reason why so many high school juniors may opt out, he believes Smarter Balanced is a good test.

“In my personal opinion, Smarter Balanced is a very good assessment,” Mikalson said.

Bend-La Pine already uses formative assessments, which offer more qualitative feedback than test scores, throughout the school year. The district is deciding how it will provide information from those assessments to the school board as one factor in tracking student growth and success, because looking at those assessments in conjunction with Smarter Balanced test scores gives Bend-La Pine a “good look” at how students are performing, Mikalson said.

“It’s really critical that we have a system to measure students’ progress toward expectations,” Mikalson said.

The district looks not just at scores or grades, but how much students have improved.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,