Our school district's focus on test scores robs kids of learning opportunities

I read with interest the Aug. 31 article in the News-Times regarding OAKS testing and its effects on policy in the district ('A Tussle Over Tests').

I'm glad to hear that students and parents at the high school are beginning to voice their concerns about the ill-effects of state testing, and I'm hoping this will encourage parents of elementary and middle school students to learn about testing, talk with other parents and begin to advocate for change.

No Child Left Behind, the law that ushered in OAKS testing, was admirable in its goals. Its aim was to level the playing field, to hold all schools accountable for the academic achievements or failures of their students.

The problem is that students come to schools with varying levels of preparedness and skills. This means that a greater portion of instructional time and resources must be used to prepare students for this one measure of academic success.

For instance, my oldest son is a sixth-grader this year and has participated in OAKS testing for the past three years. Each year, for both reading and math, he was tested at least twice, even though he met or exceeded the standard the first time he took the test.

It's my understanding that students are encouraged to retake the test, even if they've passed or exceeded, because a higher score helps bring up the class average.

Students can take the test up to three times, though only those students who haven't yet passed are asked to take it a third time. I'm not sure how many students require a third chance, but my guess would be 10-15 students, perhaps 30 percent to 50 percent of his class.

The OAKS tests are meant to test a student's knowledge and comprehension for the full academic year. However, since testing begins in late January or February, students are being asked to show competency over materials the teacher hasn't even taught yet.

The students test for a set length of time for as many days as they need to finish. With absences, testing can last up to a week. Those students who finish early are doing quiet activities like reading, but the class isn't receiving further instruction during that week of testing.

It's my understanding that students are also assessed with other tools throughout the year to gauge how well they'll do on the OAKS test, further taking away from instructional time.

Although I'm in favor of accountability for educators, this system seems unfair.

It's unfair to expect that all children will hold the same level of competencies at the same time.

It's unfair to the schools, especially those with high populations of disadvantaged students, to say that there's only this one standard to show their achievements.

And it's unfair to students, educators, and administrators to declare that this is the one and only tool that shows academic success.

A more equitable model would be based on academic growth. Currently, the state is not interested in how much or little a single student improves in their test scores from year to year.

For instance, my youngest son is in the fourth grade this year. The state isn't interested in how much his scores have improved from third to fourth grade; they're interested in how well the OAKS scores of his fourth grade class compares to the scores of last year's fourth graders.

Those are two completely separate groups of children with very different sets of learning styles and competencies. It's like comparing apples to oranges. Wouldn't it make more sense to compare the growth my son's class had made from their test scores in third grade to their test scores in fourth grade?

The fact that the state uses this model implies that it is interested only in how well his teacher is doing his or her job. Our government wants every teacher to produce kids that can pass that test every single year.

To expect that a group of children will have mastered all the skills necessary to meet a set of standards at the same time is absurd. Growth-based testing would ensure that all children's educational needs are being met, not just those students who have the lowest test scores.

Next week: How parents can help change the system

Jennifer Norman lives in Forest Grove and has two sons in the Forest Grove School District.

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