Oregon educators had a lot of complaints about the Smarter Balanced standardized tests for high school students — so many in fact that the Oregon Department of Education spent more than a year figuring out how to dump the test and use the SAT, ACT or similar exam in its place.
After a year of study that included getting input from lots of educators, teachers, parents and student advocates, the education department on Wednesday announced its new choice: the same Smarter Balanced test that critics had asked to be replaced.
It turns out that the SAT and ACT don’t actually cover the key skills and knowledge that Oregon has declared its high school students should master as well as the detested Smarter Balanced tests do, Oregon schools chief Colt Gill said in his announcement. Nor do the well-known standardized college entrance tests offer as many accommodations to give a fair shot to students with disabilities, students who speak other languages and other students with special needs, he said.
On top of that, the SAT and ACT would cost millions of dollars more each year and come with much more restrictive times and dates that students could be tested, Gill said.
Fourteen other states used the SAT or ACT as their primary high school exam this spring. But Gill said Oregon’s standards for making tests accessible and equitable for all students rule out substituting those tests here.
Sticking with the Smarter Balanced exams is likely to prove controversial in some circles. Already, many Oregon high school students or their parents had voted with their feet and signed the paperwork to exempt the students from taking them. Statewide, about 12 percent of juniors boycotted the tests in spring 2017, and at a couple large high schools, more than 80 percent declined to take them.
Scores on the test are used to see how well schools and districts are educating their students as a whole as well as how well they serve certain student groups. When more than 5 percent of students sit out, that can invalidate a school’s scores. State education officials have campaigned to get more students and parents to see value in taking the test, so far without success.
The tests are also very challenging. Fewer than 70 percent of Oregon high school juniors achieve proficient scores on the English section of the test and only one-third do that well in math.
Students need to notch a certain score — significantly lower than full proficiency — to qualify for a high school diploma. But they can substitute scores from other tests or have a sample of their work graded by teachers at their high school as an alternate way of demonstrating they have the reading, writing and math skills to qualify for a diploma.
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Just because Oregon is keeping the Smarter Balanced tests covering reading, writing, listening, math and logic does not mean nothing will change, Gill said.
His department is arranging for high school students who are ready to be able to take the test as early as January of junior year. That will help them avoid testing overload from Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and college entrance tests that many juniors face in May.
The department may even arrange to allow sophomores to take the Smarter Balanced test beginning in the 2019-20 school year, he said.
The agency is also working with Oregon’s public universities to see whether a student’s score on the Smarter Balanced tests is correlated with his or her likelihood of success in college and whether Smarter Balanced scores could be used to help determine college acceptance decisions.
His department also will work to better understand why so many Oregon high school students or their parents decide to opt the students out of taking the Smarter Balanced test. It also will try to provide guidance to parents and teachers about the value of taking the test and knowing how the student performed, he said.
Oregon’s decision was supported by a March 2018 academic paper by the pro-standards group Achieve that called using the ACT or SAT as a state’s high school graduation test a “risky” choice that would likely prompt high school teachers to dumb down what they teach.
The paper summarized the findings of three independent studies, all of which found the ACT, the SAT or both did a very poor job of covering the academic skills of the Common Core curriculum that Oregon and most other states have adopted as the standard for what high school students should master before graduating.
The Smarter Balanced tests do a better job of measuring students’ writing skills and their ability to marshal evidence from what they read, the studies said. And the Smarter Balanced math tests cover mostly high school-level math skills, unlike the ACT and SAT, which focus mostly on math concepts that should be learned in middle school and don’t adequately cover statistics and geometry, the studies said.