Ah, springtime. Longer days and lingering light offer enjoyable opportunities to get outside and experience the natural world. For a kid, spring may be the season for Little League, after-dinner bike rides, and pursuing the end of a rainbow. There are trees to climb, and more hours in a day to climb them.
For most third- through 12th-graders in the state of Oregon, the arrival of spring means it’s also time to climb the OAKS tree. OAKS stands for Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. At the elementary level, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders take standardized tests in reading and math. In addition, fifth-graders must take a science exam. Second language students also take the ELPA test, or English Language Proficiency Assessment.
We teachers spend the fall and winter teaching our students to read closely and think deeply, to be creative and problem-solve. When spring arrives, we begin the annual pep talks.
The tests are coming soon. We tell the kids we are confident they’ll be successful. We give them “magic” pencils to use. They will take the tests via computer, so we teach them how to navigate the machines. As always, we offer our help.
The morning we begin the tests, we offer snacks, sing songs, and do silly dances — anything that may make the test taking less arduous and help our students be more successful.
The moment the students begin the test, we must rein in our instincts to help. We are required to read the students directions so complicated that they might confuse a Ph.D. candidate. No embellishing or explaining is allowed.
To start the tests, students click on an icon of a bucolic scene — a stately old oak tree spreading its branches. They enter their secret ID numbers, check to make sure their names and birthdates are correct, and push “Start.”
A few students approach the tests with glee — the exams are challenging and fun for these kids. For many others, they are a tortuous rite of spring.
The tortured kids raise their hands and ask us to pronounce a word, explain a reading passage, or read a multi-digit number. To all of their requests, we are required to say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.” It’s an excruciating statement that passes our lips reluctantly. After all, as teachers our mission is to help kids.
Most students take the tests in multiple sessions. To do it all in one session is mind-numbing for many kids. Often, only part of the class will test at one time; the other kids are required to work on assignments quietly and independently while their classmates test. Classroom teachers and instructional assistants must supervise both groups.
Being quiet is not an easy feat for a wiggly 8-year-old. Juggling a classroom of testers and waiting-to-testers is equally difficult for the teacher.
The students’ scores are calculated as soon as the “End Test” button is pushed. Students and teachers hold their breath. The kids know what number they must hit to “Meet Benchmark.” A few points too low signals another round of tests is in the offing. After all, a lot rides on the results of these standardized tests.
Though I am pushing 60 years old, every time I see a kid struggle with a standardized test I experience their frustrations viscerally. I was a good student growing up, but each time I was given a standardized test, I choked. As anxiety pulsed through my veins, I agonized over each question. I second-guessed my answers, and changed them. Most likely, I changed good answers into bad.
In high school, I followed a brother who scored so high on his PSAT that he received a National Merit Scholarship, and who also achieved almost-perfect scores on his SATs. When my guidance counselor saw my SAT scores, he suggested I apply to a few less “challenging” colleges. I was considered a “smart” kid by most of my teachers in high school, but my scores seemed to indicate otherwise. It was a humbling, heartbreaking experience.
Lucky for me, I found a college that recognized my talents and discounted my lackluster standardized test scores. That school changed my life.
I can’t make standardized tests go away. In fact, some would say the new teacher evaluation systems adopted as a result of Senate Bill 290 place even greater emphasis on them. In the coming year, Oregon will switch from OAKS to a new assessment called “Smarter Balance.” Though it sounds more like a brand of butter than a test, “Smarter Balance” is actually a more rigorous, and hopefully more thoughtful, test than is OAKS.
One thing is fairly certain: “Smarter Balance” will be much more difficult than its predecessor, and initially, more students will likely score lower. Hopefully, those students will also have caring, observant teachers who recognize their strengths when a standardized test may not.