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Oregon Students Facing A Different Kind Of Standardized Test

Oregon students have started taking new standardized tests this spring. They're meant to help rate schools and to test if high schoolers have "essential skills" required for graduation.

The new exams are tough - and different. 

Oregon’s exams for reading and math used to be all multiple choice. The new “Smarter Balanced” tests are not.

Nowhere is that more obvious than a part of the test called the “performance task.”

Keslie Down teaches at Springfield’s Hamlin Middle School. “It is the most different — it is the most different in terms of a test,” Down says. “But it isn’t the most different in terms of every day, every day learning.”

Her students often do projects where they have to read, analyze information and write about it.

Those are the skills the “performance task” aims to measure. It’s research project meets standardized test.

Back in early March, Down was teaching research and writing, while prepping students for this new kind of test.  

The performance task starts out being different for teachers. They spend half an hour walking students, step-by-step, through terms and concepts that will be on this new test.

“We were trying it on for the first time, too,” says Down. “A scripted lesson is always a little difficult, as a teacher, to take something that’s just ‘step one’ and to have to read it that way was a little difficult.”

Then, students study lengthy articles so they can write out brief and long-form questions. But Down laments that students couldn’t do those steps on the computer, they will on the actual test.

Smarter Balanced and other vendors offer interim assessments that students can take online, but they’re not free, and can take hours. Some schools are using those, but not Hamlin Middle School.  

These lengthy, online assessments also tie up a limited number of school computers. That’s true even in Springfield, where voters passed a bond with more than $13 million for technology.

“I think we’re in a better place now than we were before the bond,” says Sue Rieke-Smith, assistant superintendent. “Is it adequate? No. Do we need to continue to close the gap? Absolutely.”

In the meantime, administrators want teachers to focus less on how the test works, and more on what it is assessing: reading, research, and writing. Back in Down’s room, sixth graders are in groups, doing research.

Students also worked in groups on the recent “performance task” practice. They researched animals that help people with disabilities.

Sixth grader Stephanie Constantino recalls the essay portion had her composing an argument about the animals.

“We had to get things from each source, and make a paragraph out of it — explain our reasons,” Constantino says.

Down says the performance task demands skills that students are working to develop. “They need those. The skills or the tools — two-column notes, reading, citing their evidence — that they can prove what they think, and why.”

But students also learned something else.

The multi-day research exercise, with its new vocabulary, unfamiliar subject matter, and difficult questions is going to seem daunting.

Sixth grader Kimberly Alvarez thought so.

“Well, probably when you first look at it, you’ll probably think it’s really hard,” says Kimberly. “But when you get the hang of it, it’ll kind of get easy.”

Easy? We’ll see. These are lengthy, complex tests requiring stronger computer skills than Oregon’s old multiple-choice exams.

No one really knows how students will do. But state officials are preparing for bad news.

They project just 40 percent of sixth graders will pass the language arts exam.


Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting