Assessment Opinion

Oregon Teachers’ Union Supports Opting Out, Calls for Congressional Hearings on Testing

By Anthony Cody — May 23, 2014 8 min read
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Today we have the fourth report this month contributed by teacher union activists, who have followed democratic processes in their unions to engage in active resistance to high stakes testing. Two weeks ago the Chicago Teachers Union rejected the Common Core. The same week, teachers representatives in the Connecticut Education Association also voted to push back against the Common Core and support the Network for Public Education’s call for Congressional hearings. And yesterday we learned that representatives of the Massachusetts Teachers Association had passed resolutions fighting the abuses of high stakes tests. These stories reflect the experiences and viewpoints of the teachers who wrote them. One swallow does not make a spring, but today, the fourth swallow has arrived from the state of Oregon, and it appears spring is here.

Guest post by Kathleen Jeskey.

A few weeks ago at the Oregon Education Association Representative Assembly, the largest gathering of teacher representatives in the state, Oregon’s teachers gave an emphatic thumbs down to high-stakes testing in general and the new tests scheduled to be will be rolled out next year by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in particular. One resolution stated that "...the Smarter Balanced Assessment and other mandatory high stakes testing are detrimental to students.” Another stated "...Assessment outcomes that accompany the Common Core State Standards (such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment) disrupt student learning. Tremendous amounts of time and resources are dedicated to test preparation and administration and ... decisions regarding assessment content are held in secrecy.”

Among the new business items introduced were one stating,

That OEA shall 1) Support the rights of parents/guardians to collaborate with teachers to determine appropriate options for assessment of students' proficiency if opting out of statewide standardized assessments. OEA will advocate for their right to do so without retaliation. 2) Encourage its local affiliates to work alongside students and parents and leadership groups in promoting opt out for SBAC tests and other standardized tests....

Another called for issuing a public invitation to all Oregon legislators and “every elected and appointed public official to take the SBAC test.”

An item introduced calling for endorsement of the Network for Public Education’s call for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of standardized testing was unanimously passed by the approximately 500 teachers from around the state in attendance. The body also passed a legislative objective calling for a moratorium on implementation of the Smarter Balanced assessment. The attendees represent a membership of 42,000. Clearly, Oregon’s teachers are very concerned about the effect that standardized testing is having on their students

All of this was rapidly and heartily pooh-poohed by Oregon’s Deputy Secretary of Education, Rob Saxton. While Saxton has predicted a precipitous drop in the percentage of students who will pass the new state tests, he feels that this is completely acceptable. In an article in the Medford Mail Tribune on May 23 of 2013, Saxton stated, “We’re typically 75 to 88 somewhere in there -- percent of students meet or exceeds, on any Oregon assessment test. I think when this kicks in, it could be as low as 35 percent.”

Saxton continues to hold that position. When OEA President Hanna Vaandering asked,

“Is there any rational reason why you would give an assessment that 65 percent of our students would fail?,” Saxton countered by sticking to his guns, insisting that a high failure rate is good for students. When confronted with teachers’ concerns that this is, and has been, demoralizing to young children who receive a failing score on the standardized tests and that many students have even cried and become physically ill when taking the Smarter Balanced pilot, he responded that “he knows some young students will be ‘really disappointed’ if they learn they didn’t pass the new tests. But he said he hasn’t seen students getting sick or crying over results.”

Saxton should try showing up for a few rounds of SBAC piloting in a 3rd or 5th grade classroom.

But apparently there are a lot of other things that Saxton has never seen, or chooses not to see. In that same news report Saxton, " said he refuses to have Oregon lag behind all other states in switching to teaching and testing students according to the Common Core State Standards. ... Saxton may not be keeping abreast of the latest news. As of January of this year, there were four states had that never joined the assessment consortia, nine that had pulled out of the consortia, and an additional four that were considering withdrawing.

In addition, there are many other states where the common standards and the accompanying assessments are being questioned or are under attack.

And while Saxton and the Oregonian reporter seemed to take comfort in the fact that “Washington Superintendent Randy Dorn is fully on board” with the roll out of the Smarter Balanced assessment next year, no mention is made of the fact that Washington’s teachers, at their recent representative assembly, passed many resolutions similar to Oregon’s or that Washington Education Association holds this official position on standardized testing: “WEA opposes the sole use of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), its replacement, or any other single test, in making high-stakes decisions about students and schools. WEA supports the assessment of student learning by using multiple measures of student and school success.” Also unmentioned was the fact that Washington state legislators recently voted to reject the federal demand that teacher evaluations to be tied to test scores and thus lost their NCLB waiver.

Finally, Saxton seems to be blissfully unaware of what is actually found in the assessments that he so enthusiastically endorses. In this recent news report, when Saxton is asked by the interviewer about multimedia integration on the tests and a requirement by the new Smarter Balanced exams that students watch and respond to videos, Saxton initially answers by referring to adaptive technology rather than multimedia integration. When the reporter follows by explaining the difference to him between adaptive technology and integrated multimedia and repeating the question, Saxton replies, “I’m not aware of that ... I’m not aware of that. It’s possible, but I don’t think so.” Teachers who have been learning about these tests know that students will, in fact, be tested on responses to video. In fact, the 5th grade Speaking and Listening sample question found on the same page as the Saxton interview contains a question that asks them to do that very thing.

Teachers also know their students and their communities. Teachers know that standardized tests do not show what students are really capable of. Teachers know that standardized test scores do not show the progress of special education students. Those students, who often already struggle with self confidence in learning, are often demoralized and demotivated when they fail to “meet the standard” year after year. Teachers know that their English- language learners frequently do not “meet the standard” because their knowledge of English is not yet sufficient to fully comprehend the tests. They, too, often struggle with self confidence. They, too, are demoralized and demotivated when they fail to “meet the standard” during the years that they are acquiring English.

Teachers know that a focus on standardized testing has resulted in a narrowed curriculum. Teachers know that a lot of money has been spent on standardized testing systems and the maintenance of those systems while their students have lost things like physical education, art, music, librarians, and school nurses. Teachers and education researchers know that the money that has been spent on standardized-testing systems and the maintenance of those systems would have been better spent on things like smaller class sizes, before and after school programs, summer school, trained counselors, and preschools. Teachers and education researchers know that these tests measure socioeconomic status far better than they measure the “student achievement” that they purport to measure.

It’s time for Rob Saxton to do some learning. He, like all other public officials in Oregon, has been invited to take the Smarter Balanced assessment. If he takes it, maybe then he’ll learn how poorly constructed it is, or how work that may have taken a student quite some time to do can be lost when they are logged out of the test due to a technological glitch. If he were bilingual, he might learn that the translations are poor, or he might see that a translation was clearly misplaced and does not even say what they English version does. He’ll never learn that when the tests actually roll out. If the status quo remains in place, teachers will not be allowed to discuss individual test items nor flag items that are poorly constructed or translated.

Maybe he’ll at least learn what’s actually on the tests.

It’s too bad he doesn’t seem interested in trying to understand what it’s like to be an ELL student with a developmental disability, who lives in a home where food is scarce and medical and dental care even scarcer. Maybe then he’d back off of SBAC and try to deal with the real problems our students who don’t “meet the standard” face.

NCLB was passed in 2001. Thirteen years later, we are still being sold the line that we must test children and punish their schools and teachers if they do not meet a bar that is arbitrarily set and slowly moved ever higher. All the while, Oregon’s classrooms have received less and less financial support. Earlier this month, Oregon’s teachers stood up for their students. We demanded that Oregon’s tax dollars be spent on things that will truly help close the opportunity gap, not wasted on an experiment that was decided on by the least democratic of means, by people far from our classrooms. We stood up for the rich, well-rounded education our children and grandchildren deserve. What does Rob Saxton stand for?

What do you think? Are we seeing the birth of organized teacher resistance to high stakes tests?

Kathleen Jeskey started teaching in 1987. She holds ESOL and bilingual Spanish endorsements and has been a classroom teacher in grades 2 through 8 as well as holding ELL/Spanish specialist positions in various bilingual programs. She has spent most of her 26 years teaching in Title I schools. She currently teaches 6th grade in a dual immersion bilingual program.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.