Rivals for Idaho schools chief differ on student testing

BOISE – The four GOP candidates for Idaho state schools chief split over the new student testing program that the state is currently developing, with just one of the four backing the state’s current approach.

“Our local school district has already created curriculum to meet that higher standard of the common core, and it would be nice to see how our students did,” said Andy Grover, superintendent of schools in Melba, in a televised debate Thursday night. “We have to have some accountability, and that accountability for the common core standards is the SBAC testing.”

SBAC stands for Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium; the tests are now being “field-tested” in Idaho schools, and are scheduled to count, both for students and for teacher evaluations, starting next year.

John Eynon, a music teacher from Cottonwood, opposed them entirely. “I am in opposition to the idea of high-stakes testing, because it is unfair to the students and to our teachers alike,” he said. “We have created an environment in our school where we are teaching to the test, regardless of what anyone else tells you, and kids are losing that love and joy for learning.”

Randy Jensen, a middle school principal from American Falls, said he, too, opposes high-stakes testing. “Accountability should be whole-picture – we should be held accountable to more than just one test result,” he said. He urged the state to take longer to examine and revise the SBAC test before relying on it, even if that takes several years.

Sherri Ybarra, a curriculum and federal programs director in the Mountain Home schools, said, “Testing is part of learning and growing, and I understand that when we adopt new standards we need to have a new test.” But she said Idaho is currently over-testing students, and doesn’t need to test every grade from third through 11th as it has. “I would be the type of leader who taps the brakes in that area,” she said.

The four faced off as part of the “Idaho Debates,” sponsored by the Idaho Press Club and the League of Women Voters and broadcast statewide on Idaho Public Television. The one who wins the GOP primary on May 20 will face Democrat Jana Jones in November; she’s unopposed in the primary.

All but Eynon backed the 20 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education improvement task force, which have won wide support after the failure of the controversial “Students Come First” school reform laws in the 2012 election. The recommendations include strong support for the Idaho core standards, Idaho’s version of common core standards, which set specific goals for what students should learn by the end of each year of schooling.

Eynon said, “My opponents are so similar to each other they are common to the core. I am the only candidate who will tell you, please, common sense, not common core.”

When the four were asked a yes-or-no question – whether they could ever see themselves advocating for a tax increase to benefit schools – Eynon said no, Jensen and Grover said yes, and Ybarra said, “I will advocate for appropriate funding, whatever that may look like. … Do I think we’re spread dangerously thin? Absolutely.”


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