When it comes to standardized tests and student outcomes over the past few years, Nathan Hale High School has made the grade. In 2010, the North Seattle school beat averages for the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) on practically every front, with the majority of Nathan Hale students graduating in four years and performing well on state tests. The same held true for the 2012-13 school year.
But several months ago, concern began brewing among members of the Nathan Hale Senate — a group of 25 teachers, administrators, students and parents — about a looming state test: the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA). Designed to assess students’ grasp of academic standards and their “college and career readiness,” SBA is estimated to take close to 8.5 hours, the entirety of which is spent in front of a computer.
This is the first year the state-mandated test will be rolled out by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), and the junior class of 2016 at Nathan Hale is slated to take it.
But the school’s senate members felt its juniors would expend unnecessary energy to take the test. The SBA test is not a graduation requirement for the majority of the class of 2016, who have already passed the High School Proficiency Exam (HSPE).
“It’s a waste of time,” said Doug Edelstein, a Nathan Hale social studies teacher.
SBA is supposed to be administered early this month, but senate members realized that other standardized tests also occur in the spring, such as Advanced Placement tests scheduled for later in April. Senate members also weighed the library and computer resources needed to administer the SBA. Taken together, the senate didn’t see the benefit of adding another test.
“The students who didn’t pass the HSPE are the last students you should be pulling out [of class] for eight more hours of tests,” said Meredith Berlin, a parent of past and current Nathan Hale students and a seven-year senate member.
In late February, the senate voted 24-to-1 to refuse to administer the SBA to juniors this spring.
The backlash was immediate. In a Feb. 27 statement, OSPI superintendent Randy Dorn expressed his disapproval, saying federal funding unrelated to the test could be jeopardized and teachers who violate professional obligations, such as administering required tests, could face consequences.
Officials with the SPS walked a similar line. “All schools across the state have to administer the SBA,” said Peter Daniels, interim chief communications officer. “It really isn’t optional.”
And now Nathan Hale sits at the center of an ongoing debate over the need for standardized testing.
Children of the ‘core’
The SBA is designed to assess whether students meet “common core” state academic standards in math, English and literacy throughout K-12. Common core is a set of knowledge and ability milestones that 48 states have adopted to help ensure students are prepared for college-level math and English courses. Federal education policy makers believe that pushing common core standards will allow for national educational uniformity and state-by-state comparison of students’ achievement data.
SBA would be administered in the third through eighth grades, with a final assessment in the 11th.
As state and federal testing requirements stand now, students in Washington state will have to complete 17 various standardized tests in combination with other college-ready assessments during their K-12 education.
The SBA’s origins can be traced to the highest level of U.S. government and education policy. In the summer of 2010, OSPI signed Washington up to be part of a 31-state educational consortium. Months later, the consortium, made up of education policy makers and researchers, received a $176 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a rigorous student-assessment system.
Proponents of SBA tout how it aligns graduation requirements with common core standards, as well as the test’s interactive design. Students often have to provide supporting evidence and reasoning with their answers or use drag-and-drop functions. And with various versions given at different grade levels, supporters argue it allows educators, parents and policymakers to better track students’ learning.
The consortium also has made agreements with Washington technical and community colleges that if students do well on the math portion, they will automatically be placed into college-level math classes.
‘Teach to the test’ put to the test
Not everyone at Nathan Hale is against SBA.
“This is not some big rebellion against the common core,” said Tony Renouard, Nathan Hale social studies teacher and senate member. “We’re trying to do what is best for this particular group of kids.”
But Renouard added that the senate’s position has sparked a broader conversation about both this particular test and standardized testing in general. “I think it’s time to take that discussion [on testing] out of the senate,” he said. “We had a lot of parents applauding this move and now want to be more involved in it.”
Even so, the senate decision has its proponents. In early March, a group of teachers at Schmitz Park Elementary wrote a letter to Nathan Hale principal, Jill Hudson, to show support. Days later, members of the Seattle Education Association teachers union released a resolution condemning the test.
As 2015 testing rounds unfold, boycotts of the SBA have occurred nationwide. The Washington Post reported that in New Mexico, thousands of high school students walked out on state exams, and in New Jersey, a similar number of students and parents opted out of a regional test.
Locally, teachers and parents at Nathan Hale, as well as members of Seattle’s education community, feel the test has design flaws. They voice concern that SBA may affect curriculums and teaching in the long term, as well as student confidence.
Edelstein at Nathan Hale said the test, like other state-mandated, high-stakes assessments, has the potential to lead educators to teach to the test. “The SBA test will become the law of the land, and the SBA test makers will become the de facto school board of Seattle,” he said.
Critics also cite negative projections for how well students will do on the exam. In November 2014, the consortium estimated that roughly 60 percent of students would fail the English language portion, while a similar percentage would fail math.
“It’s really a sick way to approach education,” said Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High School history teacher and outspoken critic of standardized testing. “That we want to destroy our kids’ confidence [with the test]? That doesn’t make any sense.”
Given Washington’s use of common core and the SBA eventually being tied to graduation rates, some teachers worry that the quest for high test scores may skew priorities.
Due to a decision last year by the state legislature, the state doesn’t tie teacher evaluations to test scores. But that decision made Washington the first state to lose out on a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind.
The law, a leftover from the George W. Bush era, requires states to not only administer extensive mandatory tests in math and English, but also ensure student test scores are considered in teacher evaluations.
A bill in Olympia to tie teacher evaluations to state test scores just passed the state senate and is sitting in the House Education Committee.
Nathan Olson, communications manager for OSPI superintendent Dorn, said, “If [state tests are] a valid measure of what students should know, then teachers should be teaching to the tests.”
Local critics allege that SBA may put students of color and immigrant and low-income students at an automatic disadvantage.
Hagopian said that the tests are really a judge of a student’s ZIP code, socio-economic background and their familiarity with or access to computers.
Then there are concerns if the test can actually provide valuable assessment to teachers, parents and students, given SBA’s arbitrary outcome scale.
Critics of standardized tests say there are more meaningful and holistic methods of student assessment, such as having students showcase knowledge via a well-researched project or thesis.
Hagopian cited New York’s public consortium schools, which employ a similar system and still graduate large numbers of students who succeed in college.
Nathan Hale has a program for alternative assessment called the “collection of evidence,” which can fulfill state test graduation requirements. However, OSPI mandates that students must at least attempt state standardized tests before going the alternate route.
OSPI superintendent Dorn backed recent legislation in Olympia to eliminate a requirement that students pass state-mandated exams to graduate, but the bill never made it to a vote.
For now, the Nathan Hale Senate stands by its initial resolution of opposition to the test. However, Nathan Hale Principal Jill Hudson has been in communications with the District and has agreed administer the test to all 11th graders.
It’s up to parents now to decide whether or not they want to opt their kids out of the test. Meanwhile, the local debate over student assessment and education shows no signs of dying down.
At a March 17 Garfield High PTA meeting, Wayne Au, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, critiqued high-stakes testing and SBA, saying that over the past 13 years such tests haven’t closed achievement gaps. “Increasing standards alone will not improve education,” said Liu.
Hagopian agreed. “The things that we actually need to promote the most, things like creativity, imagination … these things can’t be measured [by standardized tests], and yet are critical to the whole development of the child,” said Hagopian. “I think we have to reframe the purpose of education, and then how we assess what matters most.”