It’s testing season in the Mid-Columbia, and that means thousands of students have been spending sometimes days at a time answering test questions via computer instead of working on class projects or learning new material.
Well, except for many high school juniors who didn’t show up to school on test days altogether.
More than 80 percent of the juniors at the Kennewick School District’s three comprehensive high schools either were excused from taking the new language arts Smarter Balanced Assessments — also called SBACs — or skipped school on test days this spring.
More took the state standardized test at the Richland School District’s two high schools, but district officials said nearly half of the junior class still didn’t take the exam.
These students weren’t exactly playing hooky. As long as they took another standardized test in the language arts as sophomores and passed it, they didn’t need to take this year’s test to graduate.
“We knew we’d have a lot of kids who wouldn’t participate in that assessment,” said Kennewick Associate Superintendent Chuck Lybeck. “They’ve done what they needed to do.”
But the situation has added to an already tense situation surrounding student testing, which many teachers, parents, students and administrators say has increasingly usurped time, resources and effort in K-12 education.
“We have a lot of testing going on, and we want that to be valuable, but also mitigate student exposure to it,” said Richland Assistant Superintendent Mike Hansen.
The SBAC is in its first year of full implementation in Washington schools. It replaced the Measures of Student Progress (MSP) given to elementary and middle school students, and the High School Proficiency Exams (HSPEs) given to high school sophomores.
It’s also the first state standardized test that can only be completed online.
The new exams have led to more than a few headaches and protests. Teachers have lamented how the new tests require complex computer skills from students as young as third grade and take longer to complete.
They also pose problems differently than past exams, and that is likely to lead to lower pass rates, as noted by federal education officials and the test’s writers.
“The students aren’t getting their due education,” said Greg Olson, president of the Pasco Association of Educators teachers union.
Administrators have had to make sure there are enough computers available in each school so testing is completed as efficiently as possible. That often means scheduling entire weeks of time during which computer labs and other resources, such as rolling carts of laptops, are booked and unavailable for other needs.
Many said testing sessions have gone smoothly, though there have been instances of connection issues and of students being given the wrong test and having to take it again.
The SBAC has inspired particular distaste among some families who criticize its foundation in the Common Core State Standards.
The new standards for language arts and math are being implemented in most states, but some have called them an invasion of local control of curriculum and that they aren’t developmentally appropriate.
They share some concerns from teachers, such as the loss of instruction time to testing.
It’s also another test on top of the pile they already have to take. Many districts do additional testing to measure student progress between the fall and spring semesters in the lower grades and for at-risk students. High school students have a number of other exams, such as tests to receive credit for Advanced Placement courses, other state-required exams in math and biology, and the ACT and SAT for the college bound.
That’s part of the reason some students opt out of standardized testing. While numbers are up overall this year, they are a very small portion of each district’s population.
Pasco had nine students request to sit out of testing, officials said. Kennewick and Richland had between 10 and 20 students opt out, with most of them coming from each district’s alternative education programs — Mid-Columbia Partnership and Three Rivers HomeLink.
Those don’t include the junior students, who may not have to take the test but could have benefited from it, district officials said. An agreement with the state’s public universities and community colleges means those who take the SBACs in language arts and math can use those scores to determine their placement in related college courses, skipping placement tests. SBAC scores also are expected to reflect a student’s overall readiness for college.
“Personally, if it was my kid, I’d tell them to take the test,” Hansen said.
School officials expect the furor over the new test to die down in the coming years, as it has when other standardized exams were introduced.
That doesn’t change the fact that many want those changes to come sooner rather than later.
“We agree there needs to be standards and even testing, but there needs to be appropriate testing that measures what we teach,” said Teri Staudinger, president of the Kennewick Education Association teachers union.