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Audit: Oregon needs to get more out of expensive Smarter Balanced tests

COURTESY: SECRETARY OF STATE AUDIT REPORT - Audit of Smarter Balanced Assessments shows tests are nearly twice as expensive as the last standardized test that Oregon used. Statewide school tests through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are nearly twice as expensive as the old tests, confusing to educators and time-consuming.

That’s according to a new audit from the Oregon Secretary of State released today. The office of Jeanne Atkins conducted the audit in accordance with a bill passed by the 2015 legislature and sponsored by Portland-area Representatives Lew Frederick and Shemia Fagan.

“Impacts of testing, such as lost instruction time, might be considered a worthwhile trade-off, if the purpose and benefits of the test are clear,” reads the audit report.

The Smarter Balanced English and math tests cost the state $10.2 million to administer, including more than $1.8 million in dues to the 17-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Students also spend an average of four hours on the computerized English tests and two hours on the math tests.

Federal law ties the more than $300 million that Oregon receives for education to conducting an annual standard assessment. In Oregon, students are tested in at the beginning of kindergarten and towards the end of third through eighth grade and in 11th grade. Here, as elsewhere, there has been push-back against the standardized tests most obviously in the form of parents or students choosing to opt-out of the tests.

Smarter Balanced is in its second year — replacing the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) in English language arts and math, but not science — with a more rigorous and complex test designed to adhere to Common Core values of problem-solving and critical thinking.

In response to the report’s findings, the Secretary of State recommended that the Oregon Department of Education solidify the purpose of the SBAC tests, communicate more broadly and effectively on all aspects of the test, offer results in a more timely fashion, reduce the negative impacts on individuals and improve guidance to districts on how best to administer the tests.

In a two-page addendum to the report, Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Salam Noor pointed out that the audit mostly covered the first year of test administration and that things have improved since then.

Noor agreed to complete a stronger outreach plan by Feb. 1 and to offer local educators more resources for other kinds of tests as well. He suggested that the department will seek more money from the 2017-19 budget to make these changes.

Goals of the test should be clearer

The report says that principals and administrators complained about the length of time between their students taking the test and when the results are released. Students take the tests between February and May and results are released publicly by the Oregon Department of Education in September. Schools receive the results sooner and Noor said in 2015-16, 99 percent of the test completed before May 15 were delivered to schools by June 1.

They also said the results are too vague. Students' achievement levels are on a four-point scale — novice, developing, proficient and advanced — though SBAC agrees that these are an oversimplification designed to provide a measure of the success of a group of students.

The results are not broken out to show what an individual student might be missing.

“It would help if there were easier ways to access the scores for individual concepts — like supporting claims or understanding the main idea — rather than the easy-to-access reading score,” an unidentified teacher is quoted as saying in the report.

But there is debate over whether that is really the point of the assessments.

“Not everyone agrees on the purpose of the Smarter Balanced test, with some we spoke to focusing on the test as a measure of how individual students are performing and others focusing on it as a gauge of systems-level goals, such as school accountability and addressing achievement gaps,” reads the audit report.

Auditors pointed out that there are different forms of assessment and lawmakers prevented the Department of Education from purchasing the formative and interim assessments from the Smarter Balanced Consortium. The final tests are summative. The state doesn’t provide standard formative or interim assessments, leaving those up to districts and teachers. Auditors said educators in Washington and California — who do purchase the whole package from Smarter Balanced — say it has been beneficial.

Different groups also felt conflicted over the test’s impact on disadvantaged students, such as with Title-I-funded instructors who were lost to help with test prep.

“On one hand, the test could be creating unnecessary anxiety and lowering self-image,” the report reads. “On the other hand, some feel their needs will be ignored if the school is not being held accountable for raising their scores.”

Auditors also say they heard skepticism that results were being used to address achievement gaps and system accountability — and also worries that doing so would create a lot of pressure and stress for teachers and students.

“These, as well as other factors, may have contributed to a sense of distrust and lack of buy-in,” the report reads.


This story was updated from its original version to reflect information in Noor's addendum to the report.


Shasta Kearns Moore
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