High School Teachers Question Time Spent On New State Tests

Apr 14, 2015

We continue "Testing 1-2-3" today - OPB's occasional series on standardized testing in Oregon. Some younger students are already taking new the new federally-mandated tests. High schoolers will take them soon. There are questions about the time these Common Core tests will take.

David Wilkinson’s room at Beaverton’s Westview High.
Credit Rob Manning / OPB

An American flag, a University of Oregon banner, and posters with literary terms hang in the front of David Wilkinson's room at Beaverton's Westview High.... a typical English class. Wilkinson is leading his 11th graders through a college admissions essay.

David Wilkinson: "Curious - like, this person got into Tufts..."

What's different this year, is they're judging the essay against a scoring guide - or "rubric" - for the new Smarter Balanced language exam. That's the rigorous set of new tests in Oregon and 16 other states.

David Wilkinson: "Looking at word choice - and again on this column in the language and vocabulary column on that rubric - she does some things well. I liked the way she used 'precariously' from the get-go. OK, so she's got a pretty solid vocabulary."

Part of junior English is going beyond the nuts and bolts of writing. Wilkinson points out a subtle turn in the sample student essay.

David Wilkinson: "She talks about Spanish and Ghanaian music. She's not coming out and saying it, but she to some degree is saying 'I value diversity.' "

Smarter Balanced is meant to test both writing mechanics and the subtleties. It's not the multiple-choice tests high schoolers are used to.

Brooke Garcelon: "It's more inference, I guess. I've never had a test like that before."

Westview junior, Brooke Garcelon, says not only is the test different - it comes at a tough time. Oregon used to give a shorter and easier state test sophomore year. Garcelon's a little stressed.

Brooke Garcelon: "Especially for juniors - because we have all those other tests, and the school wants us to do a lot of college prep with that. The Smarter Balanced is kind of just a thing that's been added on to all of that. It's kind of like aaahh (laughs)."

Gene Brunak: "We're looking at May as being kind of like 'Testing May'."

Gene Brunak teaches AP English at Madison High School in Portland.

Gene Brunak: "What's really happening for a Portland Public high school 11th grader, is they'll be taking a district-required A-C-T exam. That happens April 28th, that's about the time the window opens..."

Smarter Balanced may take nine hours, on top of the A-C-T, S-A-T, A-P exams, and special tests - for students learning English, for instance. Brunak counts 20 hours of tests for some students. And, it's anticipated many students won't pass Smarter Balanced. A month before high schoolers even take the tests, Brunak learned one of his students was experiencing anxiety.

Gene Brunak: "Because she read and also picked up on the fact that many students were going to struggle and perhaps fail, and she wasn't taking that well."

Brunak suspects many students will put more effort into exams colleges look at, like AP tests and the A-C-T - than for Smarter Balanced, which is just one of three ways to achieve a graduation requirement.

State deputy superintendent, Rob Saxton says Smarter Balanced has its strengths, but…

Rob Saxton: "To be honest with you, I wish the Smarter Balanced assessment were shorter, and I'm pushing the consortium right now to make it a shorter assessment. I think it takes too much time."

David Wilkinson, the Beaverton English teacher, says he's uncomfortable with how testing and preparation is affecting class time.

David Wilkinson: "If I put all that together, it's probably about a month of instruction. That's a lot of time."

It's not lost time, Wilkinson says, but it means looking at English more in the context of a test. And it might mean dropping a novel, or maybe less writing time.

Student poems cover the back wall of Wilkinson's class. A boy writes about his dream of playing Major League Baseball. A girl fumes about the people who insist on guessing her ethnicity - and get it wrong. Another shares the grief of losing a grandparent. They're hand written. They measure self-improvement by erasure marks.

The high school testing window opens in April.

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