Schools wrestle with assessment test requirements
Oregon schools will have until June 17, an additional two weeks, to administer standardized assessment tests, the Oregon Department of Education announced Thursday, May 26. Fighting political headwinds in the stretch run of a difficult school year, schools have struggled to get enough students to take the tests.
The assessments provide key data for how schools are performing, but many parents, educators and students consider them a waste of time. The frustration is compounded this year, with so much time already lost to COVID-19 and so much catch-up work to do.
Tigard-Tualatin School District third grader Maxwell Jordan said he doesn’t mind tests but he would rather be in his regular classes.
“You get to learn new things,” he said.
His father, Michael, would also rather have students in classes, especially in the early grades.
“It’s a routine battery of tests that distracts from learning the building blocks,” he said.
Still, some school leaders see an opportunity to set a new baseline to gauge COVID-19 recovery after two years of disrupted data.
Federal law and ODE require assessment tests in English language arts and math in grades 3-8 and 11 and in science in grades 5, 8 and 11. Schools are also required to assess English proficiency for language services. School districts receiving Title 1A funding must participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
School administrators are caught by a federal testing mandate that lacks local enforcement tools. In 2015, the Legislature passed a bill requiring school districts to notify parents of their right to opt out of tests for any reason.
Redmond Superintendent Charan Cline said the tests are not valued by parents or the Legislature, making ODE’s pleas for assessment testing tough to hear.
“They get on our case, but there is nothing legal that says the kids have to take it,” Cline said.
Redmond typically does well with participation at the elementary level but poorly with secondary students, Cline said. He said students aren’t motivated to do well on the tests, or even take them, because the results don’t have much individual relevance.
Some schools use the tests for teacher and student evaluations, but many say the results come too late to be useful. Redmond uses i-Ready Diagnostics tests to regularly check how students are doing.
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires assessments to identify schools needing different levels of assistance, which can come with extra Title 1 funding. States, however, decide the indicators and the interventions if schools do poorly on the tests.
Federal requirements were called off in 2019-20 because COVID-19 struck right before the prime testing period, and the rules were relaxed for 2020-21. Oregon received federal waivers to scale back testing in 2021 because most students were in distance learning most of the year. It reported roughly 31% participation.
This year, ESSA is back to requiring schools to test 95% of all students and in each student subgroup. Oregon has generally been below 95% but has been getting in the ballpark in some areas in recent years.
English and math were at 96% and science at 90% in 2015, but the rates took a hit after the parent opt-out bill. The rates were inching back up before the pandemic hit. For 2018-19, 95% of eligible Oregon students took the English language arts tests, 94% took math and 91% took science.
A May 11 email from ODE said participation rates were below average for that point in the year, with roughly half of Oregon’s districts having rates below 20%. An ODE statement Thursday said high school rates remain low, but elementary and middle school rates are now on a trajectory to get close to 95% in some cases.
Clatskanie Superintendent Cathy Hurowitz said COVID-19 had pushed back her district’s usual testing calendar. The district northwest of Portland likes to have two-thirds of its instruction done before administering Smarter Balanced tests, and a COVID-19 outbreak at the beginning of the year delayed the district’s start.
Clatskanie had to promise ODE it would test this year after not testing last year, a state rules violation, Hurowitz said. The district didn’t test, Hurowitz said, because they didn’t want to put students in a situation where they felt like failures.
“Last year was so messed up and crazy, none of us felt like it was even fair to ask students,” she said.
North Clackamas Communications Director Seth Gordon said testing is still going on in his district. He said true participation rates won’t be known until the fall, because the district must determine the number of eligible students.
In Malheur County, where the calendar tends to run earlier than in Oregon’s western half, most districts are above 90% participation, said Mark Redmond, Malheur Education Service District superintendent.
ODE Director of Assessment Dan Farley said consequences for not meeting participation goals are not clearly spelled out and can depend on state and federal leadership. Failure to meet federal requirements could result in both the federal government withholding money from Oregon and ODE withholding money from schools, but that is not the preferred approach, Farley said.
“None of us is very interested in pursuing that because it’s not tenable,” Farley said. Instead, ODE wants to have more conversations about how testing tools can be used to benefit students and schools.
ODE has not faced consequences yet for not meeting the federal targets, he said.
Oregon schools that don’t hit the marks could face targeted school improvement requirements and increased ODE oversight, but Farley said the department is still discussing the best path forward.
The Legislature has directed ODE to minimize testing as much as possible, and Farley said the department is more focused on education and support.
“We are in a relatively compromised situation given our obligation to attend to federal participation requirements while also navigating our parent-opt out legislation,” he said. “It’s a challenging space for our districts to be in.”
Schools and ODE need to rebuild parents’ and teachers’ trust in summative assessments’ value to get the most from them, he said.
“The public needs to understand how well students are learning,” Farley said. “That has value.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA