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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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As students face required standardized testing, some educators dispute value of results

As back-to-school anticipation grows, so does the anxiety of hated testing.

In Washington, most high school students will have taken up to three different standardized tests before they can graduate. Standardized testing starts as early as the third grade, and it often takes weeks of school time to prepare and finish.

For many teachers, the required testing erodes classroom autonomy. Depending on the test, teachers aren’t told the specifics. Instead they are assured children won’t have a problem passing if the curriculum is followed.

“Testing is taking one period in time in all of their 12 years of education,” said Jenny Rose, president of the union. “If you pass that day, that hour, you pass high school. To me, that’s ridiculous.”

Washington recently adopted Smarter Balanced Assessment testing along with 13 other states, including Oregon, California and Idaho. It replaced the Measurements of Student Progress and High School Proficiency Exam tests, or MSP/HSPE, which replaced the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in 2009.

The new test is marketed as being different from the WASL and MSP/HSPE in that it’s more difficult and will give teachers more precise information on student performance.

In 2011, Washington joined the Common Core Standards Initiative, a set of learning objectives shared across states, with the idea of having a more unified set of learning objectives. The SBA is meant to test these standards and prepare students for college.

“It was backward designed for what a high school student needs to go into college,” said Steven Gering, chief academic officer at Spokane Public Schools. “And then it went backward from there.”

Each year, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction publishes statewide school “report cards” that track student and teacher demographics and give a glimpse into test results.

In Spokane County, there’s a large jump in test scores in English and language arts from last year’s 11th-graders compared to this year’s class of high school juniors. But this is precisely because the SBA was required to pass, Gering said, whereas last year’s was an afterthought to students who’d either already taken it or took a different test.

“There wasn’t a lot of buy-in for the kids last year,” he said. “The message was: You’ve already passed this test, but you need to take it again.”

And the results showed. In the math category, it would appear that students across the county posted lower scores.

In each district, math scores dropped as children got older. But Gering said math scores are low because the test is difficult, and because 11th-graders weren’t required to pass the math portion of the SBA. Instead, they’d either taken a similar test before or they took an algebra or geometry test.

Despite the SBA’s goal of giving teachers more information on how to improve, results varied. At Spokane schools, eighth-grade students did worse in English and language than the year before. At Central Valley School District, children in fifth grade improved, but only by a few percentage points.

Gering said this was normal and that it would take a few years for data to be reliable.

But it begs the question: Why track data on tests if test-takers are not required to pass?

Rose said alarmists might look at the data and conclude only a small proportion of 11th-graders are passing in math or that English and language arts skills are slipping. Gering said it’s likely that the state is pushing SBA test results early because (1) they have to publish results anyway and (2) it’s brand new.

But Rose thinks it’s more sinister than that. She looks at the SBA as a way the state can make money.

“Who’s making the money on this testing? The testing companies of course,” she said. “Of course they want days and days of testing because they’re making money on this.”

When Rose started teaching in the ’90s, the WASL was still around. Since then, she’s seen a handful of standardized tests come and go, and she’s seen the data they produce. All the while, she’s kept the same opinion.

“At some point we have to stop, because cognitively, our kids can’t comprehend some of the stuff they’re given,” she said. “I understand there should be a standardized test, but what it should be is minimized. Instead of spending days testing, it should be an easy, simple test. It certainly shouldn’t determine if you graduate from high school or not.”

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