Superintendents welcome possible pause on federal assessment requirements
Monday, November 23, 2020
Oregon plans to seek a pause on federal assessment requirements, raising larger questions about continuing the standardized testing.
COVID-19 compromises the ability to equitably offer the tests to the point it would make the data meaningless, said Dan Farley, Oregon Department of Education director of assessments.
The assessments required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the most well-known of which are Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests or SBAC, are intended as a broad look at school systems and teacher performance. But critics say they push schools to “teach to the test,” creating a narrow definition of education.
The U.S. Department of Education waived ESSA assessments last school year. Some school leaders see the pause last year and possibly this year as an opportunity to rethink how best to assess students.
The tests are system assessments that don’t serve students directly, Farley said. For this year, ODE would prefer districts focus whatever time they can have with students in person on work that helps them, he said.
Remote testing isn’t a viable option, Farley said, so schools would need to provide secure, quiet, supportive and distraction-free environments. They would also need to assure significant participation rates from all student groups for the data to be useful.
Even school districts that have students in classrooms now would struggle to give the tests.
Monument School District northwest of John Day has just 51 students and is able to offer in-person instruction for all students. But the district does not have the space in its computer lab to offer testing with social distancing. The school would have to stagger the tests, taking up much more time, said Superintendent Laura Thomas.
Thomas said she doesn’t think districts should be assessing students this year anyway. Most students essentially lost a quarter of instruction when distance learning started in the spring, she said, and complications related to remote teaching continue to hinder student growth.
ODE Director Colt Gill announced plans to seek the waiver to the State Board of Education on Thursday and met virtually with superintendents Friday. ESSA requires a public comment period before a waiver request, and ODE expects to open public comment the first week of December.
ODE will continue with ESSA’s English language proficiency assessment, which helps determine student eligibility for particular classes. Gill said ODE wants schools to give priority to ELPA over the other tests because it can have direct impacts on students.
The education board has waived the Oregon kindergarten assessment and essential skills for graduation requirement. It is also considering waiving other state assessments.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, asked during the education board meeting whether student learning would be monitored and schools and teachers would be held accountable. Helt, a former Bend-La Pine School Board member, is a designee to the state board.
Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe, an adviser to the education board, said in an interview the next day that there are numerous ways to hold systems accountable and that standardized testing should only play a part.
Waiving standardized assessments was the right thing to do in the middle of a pandemic but could also be a good path for the state long term, she said.
The Umatilla School District in northeast Oregon is heavily invested in the Measure of Academic Progress tests, known as MAPs, for student assessment and only uses the ESSA tests for some broad program analysis, Sipe said. MAP tests occur three times a year and deliver immediately actionable information while the ESSA test results are too delayed to be useful for students, Sipe said.
Sipe said accountability is important and the statewide report cards give a much more comprehensive view of schools through student metrics such as attendance, graduation data and college-going rates.
“What’s made changes for student learning are those more local and frequent assessments,” she said. “If schools are only using a once-a-year assessment to gauge student performance, we’re missing out on a lot of learning for kids.”
Farley said ODE is working on designing better accountability systems that identify not only outcomes but also inputs that support students, including developing a student survey.
Oregon superintendents on the Friday call generally favored dropping the assessments this year.
North Bend Superintendent Kevin Bogatin said his teachers don’t want to use their limited time with students preparing for a standardized test. North Bend employs other periodic assessments of student progress.
“The end-of-the-year assessment data, it’s not like we don’t want it,” he said. “It just doesn’t necessarily help us in the moment.”