Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has required standardized testing for years. But this spring, students in SPS, as well as in districts across the state, will take a new test, the Smarter Balanced assessment.

Smarter Balanced is taken online and is designed to measure how well students are meeting the new academic standards the state adapted for English and math, known as the Common Core State Standards. Smarter Balanced replaced the Measurements of Student Progress (MSPs) and High School Proficiency Exam (HSPEs), which were not aligned with the Common Core initiative.

Students in grades 3 to 8 and 11 take the test between March 10 and May 29, as well as certain students in grade 10. The test is typically given over multiple days.

Proponents of the test say it requires complex thinking, critical reading and evidence-based responses. While it includes some multiple choice questions, the test mostly demands more sophisticated thinking and asks students to apply concepts to real-life situations.

Proponents also say it’s more interactive and asks students to drag-and-drop answers, complete charts and highlight evidence. The test additionally conforms to ability and will become more or less challenging depending on how the student answers.

Schools will receive scores electronically within a month of the last assessment completed at that school, according to the SPS website. The test is different enough so that scores cannot be accurately compared to those of previous state tests.

State officials will adjust cut-off scores for graduation to maintain the current graduation rate, the SPS website stated. Teachers and school leaders will recalibrate their previous expectations, since it’s estimated that most students will do worse.

Families who refuse to allow their children to be tested can submit a refusal; however, the student will score a zero, which will negatively impact the school’s overall results.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) described the state’s history in administering Smarter Balanced.

“We switched to the Smarter Balanced tests because, in 2011, we formally adopted the Common Core state standards,” said OSPI communications manager Nathan Olson.

The initiative was developed in 2009 as a way to nationally increase student achievement in math and literacy. “The Smarter Balanced tests measure how well students have mastered the new standards; our existing test system was not aligned to the Common Core,” Olson said.

Adoption of the Common Core State Standards is integral for states that wish to compete for the federal Race to the Top grants. However, there are two tests that align with the Common Core: Smarter Balanced and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). So, why was Smarter Balanced chosen over PARCC?

Simply because of the “organic” way Washington state partnered with other states to acquire the new test, Olson explained: “Washington State began talking to Oregon and California and a few other states to see if we could get together to share costs on developing an assessment on the Common Core State Standards. From there, the coalition grew.

“When the federal government announced grants to develop assessments, the coalition — by that time, named Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — applied for the funds, with Washington state as the fiscal agent,” he said.


Opting out

However, not everyone is happy with Smarter Balanced.

Washington Education Association (WEA) spokesperson Rich Wood said Smarter Balanced, like similar tests, should not be used to assess students in this way.

“There’s tremendous concern over the way that tests are being used to make high-stake decisions about our students,” he said.

The test unfairly holds students and teachers hostage, according to Wood: “They are required for graduation in Washington state, and there are proposals in Olympia to tie test scores to teacher evaluations. But they were never designed to be a graduation requirement.”

They also erode classroom learning, he stated: “There’s huge concern over the amount of time testing takes away from learning. We need more time for learning and less time spent on testing. The test is huge and disrupts the education of students who aren’t taking the test.”

Some students are, indeed, exempt from taking the test, such as special education students.

“The focus should be on enjoying school, getting a well-rounded education and developing a love of learning,” Wood said.

Furthermore, he said that the tests themselves haven’t been adequately scrutinized.

“Testing hasn’t been proven in terms of value or reliability,” he said. “There’s so much uncertainty. We shouldn’t be using them to make these assessments. The research hasn’t been done to show whether they’re reliable, valid or appropriate, and that needs to first take place.”

Additionally, Wood said that while tests could be useful to teachers in identifying ways students could be better instructed, the results are often useless because tests like Smarter Balanced are taken at the end of the year,

“Teachers can potentially use this as a diagnostic test but can’t since the kids will already be gone,” he said.

Likewise, many families are also protesting the test and have refused to let their children take it.

“At this point we can estimate more than 500 [students] who have opted out,” said SPS spokesperson Stacy Howard in an email. But “no specific confirmed number.”

However, Howard said that, at this point, it’s difficult to say exactly why families are choosing to opt-out. Parents need to fill out forms when they want to refuse, but with thousands of students and testing only partially done, SPS cannot report their primary motives.

“What I do know is that it appears that the highest number of opt-outs so far have come mostly from juniors at some of the high schools,” Howard said. “Earlier this week, they were specifically Garfield, Ingraham and Roosevelt, where about half of the junior class at each has turned in refusal forms.”

But, so far, teachers have been cooperative. It was previously reported that teachers who boycott state tests — as they have in the past — can be fired if they don’t give their supervisors enough notice.

“We currently have not heard of any teachers specifically refusing to administer the test,” Howard said.


Missing opportunities?

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said that, despite the test’s unpopularity, it’s in the students’ best interest to take it.

“In 2011, I approved new college- and career-ready standards for our state in English language arts and math,” Dorn said in a press release. “This spring, students will be assessed on those higher standards using Smarter Balanced tests. Results from these new tests will tell us if students are on track to be college- and career-ready when they graduate from high school.”

Dorn said that many students are not on track, and this test will help them: “Families and schools deserve to know if students are on a path to success after high school, and students need extra support when they aren’t. If they don’t test, it’s more difficult to identify what skills they lack and how best to help them. Students who don’t test will miss out on opportunities, especially if they are juniors in high school.”

Students who do not achieve adequate scores are not “failures,” he said — they simply need help in reaching proficiency.

“No test is perfect,” but Smarter Balanced is the best test the state has ever administered, he said.


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