Opt-out Movement Continues in Lane County Public Schools

Numbers published by the Oregon Department of Education last week show that across Lane County, some parents and students continue to choose “opting out” of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, a standardized test introduced to Oregon public schools last year.

In Eugene School District 4J, 12.3 percent, or 1,121 students, did not participate in the math portion of the test. The number of opt-outs has remained relatively steady from last year.

Smarter Balanced is intended to measure how well Oregon K-12 schools are teaching in alignment with the Common Core State Standards, and Oregon has administered the test for two years.

Proponents of the test cite the importance of rigorous Common Core tests that capture student achievement data from year to year. Kerry Delf with 4J points to the tests’ role as a way for juniors to meet their graduation requirements.

“While there are multiple pathways to meet these requirements, other methods have either a financial cost for students” or take more time away from students and schools, Delf says.

Detractors of Smarter Balanced, like Lane County’s Community Alliance for Public Education (CAPE), call the tests “excessive” and “high-stakes,” arguing that the time, money and energy spent on the tests could be better used to help students learn on a more individualized level.

In June, the Springfield School Board published a unanimous statement on the Smarter Balanced test, calling it “too long” at eight-and-a-half hours, “expensive” at $27.5 million statewide and “not timely,” given that test results are received long after the test is taken, making it unhelpful in influencing student growth.

In Springfield this year, 334 students opted out of the math portion of the test, while 250 students did not participate in the English language arts (ELA) portion, representing a 5.8 percent non-participation rate, less than a percentage point more than last year.

The Bethel School District reported 123 students turning in opt-out forms. State data shows a sizeable decline in Bethel juniors taking the test. In 2015, 95.7 percent of juniors took the math portion of the test, but in 2016 that percentage fell to 78.7 percent. The overall number of students participating in the test dropped a few percentage points, from 97.8 percent of students taking the math portion last year to 95.6 percent in 2016.

In Eugene 4J, opt-out rates remained comparable to last year’s numbers, although the number of juniors taking the test grew from 60.5 percent in 2015 to 72.6 percent this year.

The U.S. Department of Education requires that all states test at least 95 percent of their students, and it says the consequences for not meeting those targets could include lowering school ratings or withholding federal funds, though no punitive action has been taken in Oregon. This year, state participation fell to 94.7 percent for the math portion of the test.

The Bethel and 4J school boards have not taken a position similar to that of Springfield on Smarter Balanced.

“I have school-age kids,” says Springfield School Board member Sandra Boyst, “and when I used to volunteer at my kids’ school, I saw the stress it brings to students and teachers. They have to teach to this test, and the results aren’t even ones that you can use to make sure that children are in the appropriate class the following school year.”

Boyst says the test isn’t there to help students, but rather because the state mandates it, and she’s interested in seeing alternative assessment that provides quick feedback teachers can use in the classroom.

For Roscoe Caron, a retired 4J teacher and member of CAPE, the opt-out numbers are all about fostering a dialogue around standardized testing and its place in public schools.

“The resistance movement is what has created the space for much more accurate and authentic assessments to begin to gain traction,” Caron says. “The change will come from local schools and some districts, not from Salem.”

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