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Scott Gibson: Take the test

Testing of public school students has gained increasing attention in recent years with the adoption of the Common Core academic standards. In the last full legislative session, at least three laws were passed relating to standardized tests in schools. House Bill 2655 allows parents to opt their children out of the new test, Smarter Balanced, for any reason, and that school districts must remind parents of this at least twice a year.

I will argue that parents should not opt out, that whatever its shortcomings, the Smarter Balanced test is an improvement over the old state tests, and that testing has value for students, teachers, the school district and the community.

First, I want to offer a broad overview of how tests are used in schools. Testing can be divided into three types — formative, interim and summative. Formative assessments are brief, given often, and provide teachers with real-time feedback on how students are doing, allowing teachers to identify students that are struggling, adapt instruction, and use appropriate interventions.

Guest Writer

Guest writer Scott Gibson M.D. has practiced medicine in McMinnville, his hometown, since 1989 and has been on the McMinnville School Board since 2011. He is interested in a diverse and seemingly random variety of topics, but his major non-medical interests are photography and writing. He and his wife, Melody, have three children and two grandchildren, hoping for more.

Interim tests are given less often, usually at intervals of weeks or even months, and are used to check how effective instruction has been and see if students are on track for a successful school year. As McMinnville School District Superintendent Dr. Maryalice Russell puts it, “Formative and interim tests are generally not standardized from district to district, but they provide vital information to ensure that students catch up, keep up, and move up.”

Summative tests are given toward the end of the school year to assess if students have learned content standards. These tests are standardized across the state, and for the first time with Smarter Balanced, across the many states that use this same test. Smarter Balanced provides a benchmark in math and literacy that allows districts to compare performance with other districts and the state to compare itself with other states. These results are published by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) so parents and community leaders can evaluate their school district with others statewide and nationally. In my opinion, this is a vital service to the community.

Compared to the previous multiple-choice state exams, Smarter Balanced is harder. It assesses thinking and the application of skills, rather than rote memory. In addition to greater rigor in questions, students are challenged to read relevant topics and analyze, evaluate and apply concepts in their own words.

Although Smarter Balanced is clearly more effective at assessing critical thinking, it has been criticized for taking precious classroom time to “teach to the test.” I would counter that our instructors teach to state standards, and Smarter Balanced assesses whether students have learned those standards. When I was in medical school, our professors taught us such so that we could pass the national medical board exams. In doing so, I learned the fundamentals of medicine that I still use every day. Being “taught to the test” worked out very well for me.

Even the time it takes to complete the test has been criticized. A state task force is working on ways to shorten the test. Currently, it takes less that 2 percent of total instruction time, which is less than the time spent on taking the prior state exams.

The McMinnville School Board has been careful to view Smarter Balanced as a piece in a larger puzzle, one that provides useful but not exclusively valuable information. An “opt-out” movement in Oregon is encouraging parents to exclude their kids from taking Smarter Balanced. When less than 90 percent of students in a school take the state assessment, the results are skewed, which happened last school year in one McMinnville school, making it harder for the school board and administration to judge the effectiveness of instruction. The more students that opt out of the test, the less reliable the data, which makes it hard for the board and the community to judge how our schools are doing. If we don’t know how we are doing, it becomes tough to remediate.

Too often citizens feel that government is not accountable enough. The board and administration of the McMinnville School District are asking to be held accountable. The community needs good data to evaluate our performance. We need parents and students to help us make it happen. We rely on students taking these tests as an important measure of whether we’re doing our job.

Smarter Balanced in not an ideal test, but it allows important comparisons. We will continue to use it to build and improve, not punish or tear down. Hold us accountable. Take the test.

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