Editorial: Assess the tests as well as the kids in school

By The Herald Editorial Board

Along with back-to-school sales in the stores, parents also are being greeted this week with the results of this spring’s Smarter Balanced Assessments for students in the third through eighth grades and high school.

The tests, which are also given in 16 other states and are based on the federal Common Core educational standards, are new to Washington students, first administered statewide in the spring of 2015. Students in third through eighth grades take math and English language tests and a test required for graduation that assesses readiness for college and career that is taken by high school juniors but is open to sophomores.

Having set a baseline with the results from the 2015 testing, statewide and local results showed improvement. The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction announced that testing results showed most grades improving by 2 to 3 percentage points in their scores over the 2015 results.

And even considering a number of hold-outs, some encouraged by parents and teachers, who skipped the tests for juniors in the first two years, there was improvement in the numbers meeting the graduation requirement. After only 26 percent of the class of 2016 reached the college-and-career-ready standard for English during 2015 testing, that number jumped to 75.5 percent for the class of 2017. For the math exam, the proficiency rate for the class of 2017 was still low, about 22 percent, but an improvement over 13.7 percent the year prior.

The Everett School District saw similar improvement for most grades in math and English, and continued to lead the statewide mark by 5 to 15 percentage points. For Everett’s 11th graders, 82.4 percent met the proficiency standard in English and 37.6 in math.

While the increase in scores is encouraging, there’s room for improvement in the test marks and in acceptance of the tests, themselves.

The Washington Education Association, which represents most teachers in the state, objects to the Smarter Balance Assessments’ “high-stakes” outcomes as a requirement for graduation and the amount of classroom time needed for testing and preparation for the SBAs and other tests that take too much time and attention away from teaching and learning.

Kim Mead, WEA president, in a news release Tuesday, noted that Washington is only one of 14 states that require students to pass math and English language assessments to graduate.

Actually, the state is on the right side of that standard. Expecting students to attain a certain level of proficiency in math and the English language, one that prepares them for college and career, is in their and our best interests.

But the perspective of teachers on the amount of time and effort that testing demands in the classroom is worth considering.

Along with the Smarter Balanced tests, consider the other tests give throughout the year:

A science test in fifth and eighth grades;

End-course exams in algebra and geometry and biology in the ninth or 10th grades;

State-developed assessments meant to guide day-to-day instruction;

A national assessment meant to offer a comparison among states;

An assessment of English, math and science skills for those students with cognitive challenges; and

two other screening tests to determine those who need English language services.

The replacement of the federal No Child Left Behind standards with those of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., helped win passage for last year, allows states to make changes to testing regimes.

Among provisions in the ESSA, states can limit testing as a percentage of classroom hours; districts can offer an alternate high school test that aligns with either the ACT or SAT; and states can apply for grants to audit tests for redundancy or low quality.

The Smarter Balanced Assessments offer advantages and advancements over past testing systems, especially in offering guidance into where children are showing proficiency and where they need more assistance. The recent results indicate that students have already started to adapt to the tests and can show marked improvement.

As students, parents, teachers and district officials gain confidence in Smarter Balanced, an assessment of each assessments’ value as an educational tool would make sense.

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