Concerns about Smarter Balanced continue in new audit

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Concerns about Smarter Balanced continue in new audit

7:44 p.m. PDT September 14, 2016

State auditors said Smarter Balanced student assessments are confusing and unpopular, according to a new audit report.

Though these concerns have come up in the past, the audit team now suggests a handful of things to improve the current system.

They recommended the Oregon Department of Education improve communication with educators and administrations, clarify the purpose and benefits of the assessments, explore other assessment styles and use the testing results more consistently.

The Secretary of State’s audit report, released Wednesday, reviewed the impacts of the statewide assessment given in Oregon public schools through a series of surveys, site visits and interviews. The audit found “schools faced challenges in the first year of administering the new … test, including adjusting to the demands on staff and school resources.”

The audit team received 5,072 responses to the educator survey, 799 responses to the parent survey, 376 responses to the principal survey, and administrator responses from 95 school districts out of the 197 total districts in the state.

The audit found “there is not a clear agreement on the test’s purpose (and benefits), the results of the test are not used consistently, many reported test administration challenges, and some student populations may experience more negative impact than others,” including English language learners, lower-income students and students with disabilities.

“In order for these tests to provide useful information, students need to be able to demonstrate their abilities capably,” Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins said in a statement. “If a student’s individual circumstances prevent them from doing their best work on the test, it calls into question the value of the results.”

The Smarter Balanced assessment was introduced by the Oregon Department of Education in the spring of 2015. It tests third- through eighth-graders and 11th-graders in math and English language arts. The test aims to assess the students’ progress toward meeting Oregon’s college- and career-ready, Common Core standards.

The audit was required under House Bill 2713 in 2015; the report was required underHouse Bill 2680.

According to some educators surveyed for the audit, preparing for and administering the test “took away from instructional time and added stress.” Specific concerns included testing time taking staff away from other duties, with some schools needing to hire additional staff or substitutes specifically for testing.

It was also reported that in some instances, school computers were unavailable for months during testing. The audit also found the assessment requires more time and depth of knowledge than the previous test.

However, some educators said the impact was no different from previous tests. Some saw improvements in the second year, and some said they “appreciated having a test tied to standards that are more rigorous.”

The new tests are more expensive.

In the 2013-14 school year, “the department paid nearly $5.2 million to support most statewide tests, including (Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) (OAKS),” according to the report.

However, in the 2014-15 school year, after the transition to Smarter Balanced, “the department paid nearly $10.2 million to test the same subjects under the new standards.”

After reviewing the results of the audit, the Secretary of State recommended the Oregon Department of Education “improve communication, foster consistent use of results and continue its commitment to improve test administration.”

The report calls on the state to invest in more tools to help with consistent, comprehensive assessment, rather than just one large test toward the end of the year — known as a form of “summative assessment.” These would include things like quizzes and class activities and interim assessments such as midterms and benchmark exams which are also aligned with state standards.

“By not offering comprehensive assessment resources, the state may be missing an opportunity to realize the benefits of an effective performance measurement system and better support educators with tools they find useful,” according to the report.

Deputy Superintendent Salam Noor said the department “will use the work group’s findings to continue to improve our efforts to ensure our students are on the right track.”

Based on the feedback in the report, Noor said the Oregon Department of Education will take the following actions:

  • Communication: By February 1, 2017, the department will ask schools and districts what additional resources they need for local efforts; establish additional communication channels; conduct an internal review of the technical documentation; and provide additional information on test administration training protocols.
  • Technical assistance: The department will work with the test delivery partner, American Institute for Research, to identify opportunities to improve turnaround time of assessment results back to the school districts; and lead two assessment literacy projects in 16 school districts. The department intends to make this pilot project statewide in the 2017-19 biennium.
  • Balanced Assessment System: The department will actively pursue opportunities  to engage with education partners to clarify the role played by different types of assessments — formative, interim and summative. They will provide resources and capacity-building for Oregon schools in using other practices. The department will actively seek the resources necessary to provide these tools statewide in the 2017-19 legislative session.

The full audit report is available online.

For more information, contact the Secretary of State’s audit division office at 503-986-2255 or the Oregon Department of Education at 503-947-5600.

Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745, or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate or Facebook at www.facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist

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