Smarter Balanced Assessment for Oregon Public Schools

In 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. 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.

How long do the tests take?  Total testing time is listed as seven hours for elementary students, 71/2 for middle-schoolers and 81/2 hours for high school juniors. That includes a 30-minute class discussion on each subject before the performance task begins.

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 that 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 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 ten 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

The 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 definition of “proficient.” This wasn’t supposed 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.

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 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.

General Questions & Answers (Q&A): This document, last updated June 2011, provides frequently asked Q & A regarding the Oregon Diploma and the following topics: Credit Requirements, Essential Skills, Personalized Learning, Credit for Proficiency, and Standards and Assessment.


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.).  You can also download the data (Microsoft Excel) into a spreadsheet.

The below links are for the Oregon Smarter Balanced Assessment results:

OregonLive Website Performance Guide  The report cards are based almost entirely on students scores on the new Common Core tests plus, for high schools, graduation rates. The state mines the scores to see not just how many passed and how many fell short but how much progress individual students made from their test performance a year and two years earlier.

2018 Performance Test Results

Oregon fourth-graders performed significantly worse in math last spring than they did two years earlier and neither fourth- nor eighth-graders registered gains in reading, results of a nationwide exam show. Those results, on the only exams whose results can fairly be compared among all 50 states, are “really more evidence that we have a lot of work to do here in Oregon in our K-12 schools,” said Brian Reeder, the state’s assistant superintendent for research. Oregon tied for fifth-worst at getting fourth-graders to master basic math, according to results on the exam, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the state’s fourth-graders registered the 11th lowest share who mastered basic reading, tying with those in Alabama, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The eighth-grade performance was mediocre in both subjects, the test found.

Results for all states and the nation were made public Tuesday. Nationally, the performance showed no improvement from 2007 or 2009, except in eighth-grade reading, where the 2017 performance, along with that of 2013, was significantly higher than at any point in the past quarter-century.

“Our nation’s reading and math scores continue to stagnate… We can and we must do better for America’s students,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “More alarmingly, the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, despite billions in federal funding designated specifically to help close it.”

Looking at the Oregon result, Reeder said that, while the national assessment test does a good job comparing overall results from state to state, “what it doesn’t do is provide (Oregon officials) with enough detail to guide specific policy initiatives that will help us improve our outcomes.”

That is largely the result of only 4,200 Oregon students in each grade took either the reading or the math exam, whereas Oregon public schools enroll roughly 40,000 students per grade. Reeder said some such initiatives he thinks will improve outcomes are already underway, and he cautioned patience.

Source:  “Oregon fourth-graders lose ground in math, no improvement in grade 8,” by Betsy Hammond.  The Oregonian/OregonLive, April 10, 2018

2017 Performance Test Results

Oregon released performance ratings on more than 1,100 public schools Thursday, highlighting how well each has propelled students ahead in English and math and, for high schools, get them to earn diplomas.

Top-performing schools are disproportionately located in the Portland metro area, the new reports show. Although Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties contain about one-third of Oregon’s public schools, they claim nearly half of the top-tier performers.

High-income neighborhoods and communities do not, however, have a lock on schools that deliver the best results, the new ratings show. Nearly half of elementary and middle schools with outstanding performance ratings serve neighborhoods or communities where one-third or more of the students are low-income. More than half the top-rated high schools are ones where one-third or more of students qualify for subsidized school meals.

Those schools’ top-tier results are extra impressive because, as a group, students from low-income backgrounds need more expert teaching and more guidance and encouragement to score high on standardized tests and graduate on time than students from more advantaged backgrounds.

Portland Public Schools, the largest district in Oregon, stood out — in a bad way — for its results this year. It had a large cluster of elementary and middle with rock-bottom performance ratings. Kelly, Rigler, Sitton and Peninsula elementary schools all earned ratings that placed them among the lowest 5 percent of Oregon schools. That was chiefly because their students made anemic year-over-year gains on reading, writing and math tests, the ratings indicate.

Source:  “New ratings show performance levels for every Oregon school,” by Betsy Hammond.  The Oregonian/OregonLive, October 12, 2017

2016 Performance 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.

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.

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