Teachers in Mid-Columbia say Common Core tests are stressing students

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 28, 2014 

Cursive writing at Ea#A92E2.jpg

Kaylee Garner, a thrid-grade teacher at Eastgate Elementary School in Kennewick, shows her students in February how to write in cursive.

TRI-CITY HERALD FILE — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Teachers across the state and in the Mid-Columbia are encouraging parents to opt their children out of field tests of a new standardized state exam that will debut next spring.

Thirty schools in Pasco, Kennewick, Prosser, Finley and Burbank are participating in field tests of new standardized assessments based on the math- and language arts-focused Common Core State Standards, which will be used officially in a year.

But educators and others said the field tests are putting an unnecessary burden on students, who sometimes break down in the classroom because of the stress. They say it's also limiting learning time and straining other school resources.

"Parents need to know they can do this," said Teri Staudinger, president of the Kennewick Education Association teachers union.

Making a better test

The trial run is the final opportunity for the companies developing the Smarter Balanced Assessments, or SBAC tests, to work out bugs and fine-tune questions before they become the official state exams next spring.

While acknowledging there are challenges, state and local education officials said the field tests are necessary to produce effective assessments, and students and teachers will benefit from having an early look at them.

"So far, the students are very engaged in the test," said Bev Henderson, Kennewick's assessment coordinator.

Most states have adopted Common Core, with some having already fully implemented the new standards, which emphasize application of knowledge and critical thinking, rather than rote memorization and basic understanding, district administrators said.

Washington's field tests are administered on a computer, just as they will be when students take them for real next spring, unlike the state's current standardized exams, which are taken with paper and pencil.

"We want this to be fair," said Kristen Jaudon, spokeswoman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The math practice test for sixth-graders goes over ratios, decimals and plot lines, but also has questions requiring students to show support for a claim regarding an equation and then demonstrate how it could also be false.

The language arts test has questions about selected texts, such as showing evidence of a claim, words that could be used alternatively from those used and summarization.

Some aspects of Common Core are a departure from how education has been traditionally taught and students have struggled with preparatory test questions given ahead of the field tests, school officials said.

"We really needed more time to work out the instructional impacts," said Kathy Hayden, Pasco's executive director of curriculum and professional development.

The technological aspect also poses a challenge. Administrators in the Columbia School District in Burbank estimated it would take their elementary and middle school students two weeks to complete the field test in its current format, while previous standardized tests only took a few days.

"This is much more intense," said Superintendent Lou Gates. "If we did two full weeks of testing, that seems like an extreme amount of time."

As with pilot tests of the assessments conducted last year, districts will not receive any scores or other data after the field tests are completed. They also are excused from conducting the official standardized test, the Measures of Student Progress, or MSP, in its final year because of the time crunch it would create in schools.

That means less data for educators to use to inform instruction, though administrators said scores from the state's current standardized tests are only one of the assessments used to identify student struggles.

"We have so many other data points," Hayden said.

Test tensions

While the field test data won't be used to assess students or teachers, the tension they're creating in classrooms is palpable, educators said.

Teachers are being crunched for time to prepare students for the tests. Schools have struggled to find enough computers to allow students to take the tests. And students have worried about their performance.

"Kids are breaking down in tears," Staudinger said.

During a recent conference, delegates of the Washington Education Association, the state's teachers union, drew up and approved a new initiative titled, "Opting out of Standardized Tests."

It calls for informing parents of their right to opt their child out of standardized testing as allowed by law and encourages teacher groups "to work alongside student and parent leadership groups in promoting opt-out for SBAC tests whenever possible."

The initiative still must go through an editing process before it's finished, said Linda Mullen, a WEA spokeswoman, and the proposal isn't just concerned with the new standardized tests. Most of WEA's members support Common Core, she said.

But patchwork implementation of the standards across the state and tests that don't match up with student abilities, particularly young elementary students who may lack some computer skills, are big worries.

"They are definitely concerned about the impacts," Mullen said.

Issues with the field tests, compounded by other concerns regarding Common Core's implementation, are leading to a revolt against the new standards elsewhere. Indiana has withdrawn from implementation of Common Core and Staudinger said lawmakers in New York state are considering the same.

Students can be excused from the testing, state education officials and Mid-Columbia district administrators said.

Acknowledging that the field tests are creating headaches, administrators said there are benefits to trying out new assessments before they become the official assessments. Gates said the Burbank schools specifically wanted to use the field tests to troubleshoot their technology infrastructure while Hayden said it just helps to be aware of what the new tests could look like.

"I think its value is that it will give us a sense of the nuts and bolts, the trouble areas," she said. "If that can get cleaned up before scores matter, I think that will be to everyone's benefit."

Practice tests available online for parents to see

Test questions being used to prepare Mid-Columbia students for a field test of the state’s new standardized exams are available for parents to test drive as well.

The practice tests can be found at www.smarterbalanced.org/practice-test. Click through to get to the tests and take them as a guest.

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