Smarter Balanced Assessment for Oregon Public Schools

CommonCore_SmarterBalanceIn 2015, Oregon schools switched to new, harder tests of students’ reading, math and writing skills called the Smarter Balance. 

Oregon is among 17 states that have switched from old-school multiple-choice state reading and math tests to harder Smarter Balanced exams that begin with the 2014-2015 school year. The switch was motivated by two factors: Wanting a test that lines up better with what students need to know in college and the workplace and needing a test that matches the new Common Core State Standards that Oregon and most other states now use to guide teaching. The Oregon’s Board of Education unanimously chose Smarter Balanced as the state’s next official package of tests.

New tests are needed primarily because Oregon’s current tests don’t cover the skills schools must impart under the Common Core State Standards that Oregon mandated schools cover by 2014-15. Common Core includes having students read more nonfiction, write more complex analysis and master math skills such as multiplication and linear equations at least a year earlier than they used to. 

How will the Smarter Balanced Test Work? Q & A

The Oregonian published an article written by Betsy Hammond in their March 11, 2015, print edition, “How will the Smarter Balanced test work? Q & A.” The section “How long do the tests take” was modified in December 2015. Below you can review the article.

What are the basic outlines of the test?  There are two separate tests: one for math and one for English language arts. Each test has two parts: A long series of multiple-choice and short-answer questions and a separate “performance task.”

What is a ‘performance task?’  In math, it is a complex, multi-step math exercise such as designing a garden or plotting and analyzing medical data. In language arts, the performance task involves reading or listening to three or more passages on a single topic, answering three research questions about them, and then writing a long persuasive or informative article, citing evidence from multiple sources. The ‘performance task’ is a required writing section on both the English and math tests, starting in third grade.  

How long do the tests take?  Total testing time was originally listed as seven hours for elementary students, 7½ for middle-schoolers and 8½ hours for high school juniors. That includes a 30-minute class discussion in each subject before the performance task begins. Oregon students will reduce the time spend as much as an hour less on state tests. The 30-minute class discussion for both English and math meant an hour of test-related lessons for each student. The state consortium that runs Smarter Balanced voted to eliminate the requirement of teacher lessons in early December 2015 and modify the test questions so the lessons aren’t necessary.  

Who will take the tests?  Students in grades 3-8 and 11 will take the Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts (reading, writing).

Will schools ask students to take hours of tests at a time? Most schools will stretch testing in either subject over about a week. They will break the tests into blocks of 30 minutes to an hour at a stretch. The language arts performance task is scheduled to take two hours altogether. The rest of the reading test will take an hour and a half for elementary and middle school students and two hours for juniors. The math performance task will last about an hour. The rest of the math test will take 90 minutes in grades three through five and two hours in middle and high school.

Which parts of the test are given on computer?  All except the class discussions are given on a computer or tablet.

When will students get their scores?  Unlike the OAKS tests, which are scored instantly by the computer, Smarter Balanced tests must be scored by people. It will take several weeks after a test is completed for the district to receive scores, so many scores will arrive during the summer. Schools can decide when to share them with parents and students.

How will scores be used?  Schools will use the scores to see what areas they taught well and what they need to teach better, both to individual students and to classes and grade levels as a whole. Scores will tell parents and students where the student stands compared to a college-ready benchmark, other students in the school and the state, and students across the 17 states where Smarter Balanced is given.

Will there be consequences for failing the test?  Scores will not determine students’ grades. Scores will not determine if students advance to the next grade.

Will schools or teachers be graded on using test scores?  Scores will not be used to rate schools this year, but they will in 2016. Scores will play no role in teacher evaluation this year, but they will play a small role in some teachers’ evaluations in future years.

Who grades the writing portion?  College graduates will grade the math and reading performance tasks. Data Research Corporation, a huge testing company, will hire people who will be required to hold a 4-year degree in the content area they score. Raters will be trained and their accuracy will be monitored.

When will the public learn the results? The Oregon Department of Education plans to release test results for the 2014-2015 school year in mid-September 2015.

What if I don’t want my child to take the test?  You can choose to have your child excused from taking the test for religious reasons or due to a disability. Schools generally require a written request briefly stating the religious belief or disabling condition.

What if a student gets sick or anxious and can’t finish?  Students can take a break from the test whenever their teacher deems necessary. Many schools plan to give the test in blocks lasting 45 minutes or less. There is no time limit on how many minutes a student may spend answering questions. Students have 45 days from the time they answer the first question on the regular tests to finish. The performance tasks need to be completed within 10 calendar days.

Do kids at charter schools and private schools take these tests?  Charter schools, like all other public schools, must give the tests in grades three through eight and grade 11. Private schools do not give them.

How much does this cost?  The state is paying American Institutes of Research about $5.2 million to deliver and score the new tests for the first year of testing which is 2015.

Does every public school student in the nation take the same test?  Students in all states must take new tests aligned to college- and career-ready standards. Students in 18 states, including California and Washington, will take Smarter Balanced tests. Students in 10 states will take a different large-scale test known as Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career , or PARCC. Those in other states will take commercially developed tests or state-specific tests.

Who can see the scores? Scores for individual students are provided to the parents or if the student is 18, the student. They are shown to educators with an educational need to know, generally meaning the principal and the student’s own teachers.

What’s with the name?  Groups of states were encouraged to join together to try to develop the best Common Core tests. Oregon and Washington helped lead formation of one of two competing groups. They wanted to project that they were the best group and would develop a test with a good balance of multiple-choice questions and authentic performance tasks. So they called their group “the Smarter, Balanced Assessment Consortium.” As happened with the other group, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC, the test the group developed took the name of the group that created it.

Oregon’s Law Makes it Easy to Opt-Out of Testing

Oregon’s current law allows families to opt students out of testing only for religious reasons or due to a disability. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools that fail to test at least 95 percent of students in every category, including low-income, special education, and limited English students, have their performance rating downgraded a notch or two.

New Bill Makes it Easy to Opt-Out  Governor Kate Brown signed a bill in the late June of 2015 making it easier for parents to opt their children out of taking state standardized tests. In a statement made by Brown after the signing. She warns that participation in the tests are crucial to success and implores teachers and administrators to let parents know how important it is that they participate.

Federal officials had warned that the bill, which also reduces the consequences for schools where many students skip tests, could lead the federal government to withhold millions in federal education funding.

House Bill 2655, which was strongly backed by the Oregon Education Association (OEA), prioritizes the rights of parents to exempt their children from that one aspect of public schooling over the desire of school accountability proponents to get complete reading and math test results for all students each year. The new law means that beginning in the spring of 2016, schools will have to notify every family at least 30 days before state testing begins about what the tests will cover, how long they will take and when results will be delivered. Those notices will also tell parents they can exempt their child from the tests for any reason.

According to the Willamette Week, the OEA spent more than $1.1 million to get the governor elected in the 2010 general election. That funding was about 12 percent of what it cost the governor to win.

Interpreting the Test Results

SmarterBalanced_logoThe Common Core was devised by experts convened by state education commissioners and governors to set uniform benchmarks for learning. Before the Common Core, each state set its own standards and devised its own tests. Some states made the standardized tests so easy or set passing scores so low that virtually all students were rated proficient even as they scored much lower on federal exams and showed up for college requiring remedial help.

Here are some results from the first Common Core tests that were given in 2015. In September 2015 Ohio state officials releasing an early batch of test scores declared that two-thirds of students at most grade levels were proficient on reading and math tests given under the new Common Core requirements. Yet similar scores on the same tests meant something quite different in Illinois, where education officials said only about a third of students were on track. And in Massachusetts, typically one of the strongest academic performers, the state said about half of the students who took the same tests as Ohio’s children met expectations. Oregon said that 70% of the students were performing just fine.

Every state has their own definition of “proficient.” This wasn’t suppose to happen with the Common Core tests as the idea was to compare “apples to apples.” Fewer than half of the 40 states that adopted Common Core originally are using tests from either of the testing consortia that develop the exams, making it difficult to equate results from different states.

Where to Find Test Results

The Oregon Department of Education’s website has an “Accountability/Reporting” table where you can find test results for any Oregon school district as well as individual schools within a district.  You can obtain results by school year, sub-group (gender, ethnicity, etc.), and by subject (reading & literature, mathematics, science, etc.).  Should you desire, you can also download the data (Microsoft Excel) into a spreadsheet.

The below links are for the Smarter Balanced Assessment results released in September 2015.

  • Oregon Department of Education This page contains links to downloadable files (Microsoft Excel) of state assessment results for 2014-15 and 2015-16. If you’re looking for details the site is the place to find them.
  • The OregonLive Website Schools Guide  Select the school or district to view Smarter Balance scores. It is not necessary to download the files.

OregonLive Website Performance Guide  Nearly 1,200 Oregon schools are rated by five performance grades with about 10 percent in the elite top tier and 5 percent in the lowest tier. Schools are rated based on their reading and math test scores (“achievement”), their students’ year-to-year growth on those tests and, for high schools, their graduation rate. In each area, they are rated as one of five levels. Level 5 = best, Level 1 = worst. 

Oregon Graduation Requirements Test

school_hsgraduationIn January of 2007, the Oregon State Board of Education voted to adopt new high school graduation requirements. These new requirements are designed to better prepare each student for success in college, work, and citizenship. To earn a diploma, students will need to successfully complete the credit requirements, demonstrate proficiency in the Essential Skills, and meet the personalized learning requirements. Starting with the senior class of 2012, to graduate from high school in Oregon, every high school graduate’s transcript shows whether the student passed or failed state tests in writing and math. 

For Oregon high schoolers, the reading requirement kicked in with the class of 2012; students in the class of 2013 had to demonstrate they can read and write to get a diploma; the class of 2014 had to measure up in reading, writing, and math. 

Oregon requires students to produce highly advanced writing in order to graduate, but it awards diplomas to students who demonstrate relatively weak math skills. The high graduation standard in writing and low scores in math were revealed in the fall of 2015 when the Oregon Board of Education made an otherwise obscure decision about how to implement the new Smarter Balanced standardized tests.

Board members declared precisely which scores on the math and English tests,which measure proficiency on the rigorous new Common Core standards, are the equivalent of passing Oregon’s previous graduation exams.

Oregon is the 27th state to require students to pass a state high school graduation exam. California began requiring students to pass state reading and math exams in 2006.  Washington graduated its first class of students in 2008 who had to pass state reading and writing exams to get a diploma. Oregon will be one of just two states (the other one is New Jersey) to allow students to substitute a locally graded essay or work sample if they can’t pass the state graduation test.

Learn more about the Oregon Diploma Graduation test by clicking here.

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Smarter Balance 2016 Test Results

Oregon students’ end-of-year performance in reading and math was largely flat this year, except for some mild progress in some elementary grades and a possible uptick by high school juniors.

Overall, 55 percent of students fully mastered Common Core standards in English and just 42 percent met them in math, according to the second year of results from Smarter Balanced tests, created to measure whether students are on track to be college-ready when they graduate.

Compared with results from 2015, more third-graders mastered mathematics and more fifth-graders mastered English. High school juniors improved on strong performances in reading and writing and a weak showing in math. But those 11th-grade results aren’t reliable to any degree of precision because so many juniors – 10 percent in English and 13 percent in math – declined to take the exams.

The lack of strong gains across the board was somewhat surprising, as schools generally show improvement during the initial years of new tests, as teachers and students gain familiarity with the style of the exams and the skills and content they cover.

Leaders at Portland Public Schools, which had declining or stagnant results in most areas but improvements in elementary reading and writing, attributed the overall lack of progress to their focus on improving elementary reading last school year. The district worked so hard on early reading that it necessarily took its eye off the ball in other areas, Assistant Superintendent Chris Russo said.

State schools chief Salam Noor, stressing the positive, pointed out that the mild statewide increases were broadly shared. Low-income, Latino and special-education students and English learners all saw gains in reading and writing.

Many results must be taken with a grain of salt, however. In Portland, Eugene, Bend and Roseburg, for example, more than 10 percent of students declined to be tested. The federal government considers test results reliable only when at least 95 percent of students take part. Portland, Eugene, Roseburg and six smaller districts failed to meet that threshold in every grade and subject tested.

In Portland, opt-out rates were highest in high schools, particularly Wilson, Cleveland and Grant, and in inner Southeast and Northeast elementary and K-8 schools with above-average shares of middle-income families, including Lewis, Sunnyside, Roseway Heights, Buckman and Abernethy.

Among high schools, Lakeridge in Lake Oswego soared to the top in performance this year, with 68 percent of juniors demonstrating full proficiency in math and more than 95 percent in reading and writing.

Read the entire story at The Oregonian/OregonLive website…

Source:  “Oregon academic achievement mostly flat in second year of Common Core tests,” by Betsy Hammond.  The Oregonian/OregonLive, September 8, 2016  

View Test Results by State, School District, and School

This page contains links to downloadable files (Microsoft Excel) of state assessment results for 2014-15 and 2015-16. If you’re looking for details this is the place to find them.

For a condensed view of the test results (you don’t have to download the files into a spreadsheet) visit the OregonLive Website Schools Guide and select the school or district to view Smarter Balance scores.