The Smarter Balance Test is destabilizing education

This year, for the first time, Liberty will be administering the Smarter Balance test to all juniors and sophomores. Before you freak out, this year is just a trial. The scores won’t mean anything as far as graduation, but in future years, they might.

That is one of the reasons why the administrators and teachers at Nathan Hale High School in Seattle have decided to boycott the test. They claim that it will only mean failing more students, and juniors are too overworked to take this time-consuming test. Additionally, with teachers’ pay correlated with the test scores, many of the faculty are reluctant to have this difficult test administered.

In many ways, the points made by the Nathan Hale administrators are valid. For juniors, this test will span four days with two hours spent on testing each day.  It will be administered on computers, requiring students also to learn a new program for recording answers. The sophomores will have a similar experience, but with a shortened test that takes only two days and will be administered on paper.

As for the failure rate, legislators who helped create the test estimate that 60% of students will not pass, according to the Seattle Times. At Nathan Hale, there is a serious fear that this rate will be even higher due to the schools demographics and previous standardized test scores.

However, there is also a risk from not taking the test. By boycotting the Smarter Balance test, Nathan Hale risks losing funding from the state.

But what does all this mean for us? Well, it means busy juniors will have another eight hours of testing. Sophomores may have to take this test as a graduation requirement next year. It also means that the EOC tests, which were only implemented for this current junior class, are now being phased out. Though our test scores may be higher than Nathan Hale’s, we still could have a significant portion of students who wouldn’t pass.

While this loss of instruction time and misguided requirements would be detrimental, it is important for the state to know which schools need help and which are meeting requirements. In order to establish this baseline, they need one consistent test. Recently, however, the standardized tests have been switching so frequently that it seems impossible for the state to know whether a school is improving.
And most importantly of all, how is the state helping schools to improve?

One feature of this new test that could be beneficial to many students is the personalized nature of the test. After each answer, the test will tailor the next question to be harder or easier. For example, if a student answers a question right, the next one will be harder. If he or she answers a question wrong, the next will be easier. This will enable each person to get more accurate feedback on his or her results.

This can also help teachers to establish which students need more help. Since the scores will be available in just a few weeks, teachers will quickly be able to see how their students are doing.

But ultimately, testing is not the solution for schools that are falling behind. “If you had a cold or the flu, would you try to get well by taking your temperature over and over? Why are we trying to educate students by testing them over and over?” Nathan Hale principal Jill Hudson said.

It’s true we need some type of standardized test, but just one, and the same one for consecutive years. We also need a test that isn’t going to keep 60% of high school students from graduating. But without the graduation requirement attached, many students would not take the test seriously, leading to lowered teacher pay or lowered overall school scores.

The bottom line: transforming the intangibles of student learning into concrete numbers is an impossible task. One test, no matter how comprehensive or high-tech, cannot capture a school’s worth. If we, as a state and a country, really want to improve our schools, we need a solution that renovates the entire system. At the Patriot Press, we may not know what that solution should be, but the Smarter Balance test isn’t it.

So we ask you, the Liberty community to start the conversation. What is it we value in our schools, and how can we possibly measure it?