In violation of state policies, Salem-Keizer students won’t be given standardized tests this spring

Giovanni Fajardo Perez, a student in Crystal Magee’s kindergarten and first grade classroom, uses colored pencils on the first day back to school at Richmond Elementary on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Students in Salem-Keizer schools won’t take state standardized tests this spring after a split school board voted Tuesday night not to have the district administer the assessments.

District administrators told the board that scrapping the tests for the second year in a row would let teachers make better use of the remaining weeks of the school year, allowing them to focus on teaching kids and helping them catch up after a year of online classes.

“This would allow our students to focus and our teachers to focus on student growth and development, helping us identify students who might need additional supports in summer,” assistant superintendent Kraig Sproles told the board.

The decision, made on a 4-3 vote, means Oregon’s second largest district will break state rules for public school operations, which require tests to be administered each year. The Portland Public School Board also voted Tuesday not to administer the tests. Other districts in Oregon are discussing similar steps, Oregon School Boards Association spokesman Alex Pulaski said.

In Salem-Keizer, teachers and district administrators will still gather data about how students are performing academically through briefer in-class reading and math assessments.

Those assessments are part of the curriculum used by local schools in Oregon, and test results are compared to a national standard to give a picture of how local students fare compared to national averages. In March, for example, Sproles presented data to the board showing more second graders across the district were struggling to read passages, a key skill for young readers to master. Native Spanish speaking students, as well as Black and Pacific Islander students, saw the largest increase in the share of students struggling compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Teachers typically use the results of those assessments, not state standardized tests, to identify where students are falling behind and adjust instruction as needed.

Teachers have access to results from the less-formal assessments immediately. State testing data from assessments in the spring is generally released the following fall.

Oregon unsuccessfully sought permission from the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year to waive the standardized testing requirement for local school districts.

After that waiver was denied, the Oregon Department of Education instead removed some pieces from the required tests to shorten the administration time. The department told districts they only needed to test students in each grade level in one subject – English, math or science – rather than the two or three that are usually required.

Sproles and Superintendent Christy Perry told the board that state standardized testing data is useful to monitor how various schools and the district as a whole are performing year over year. They also said it’s useful to identify gaps in learning for specific groups of students along racial and ethnic or other demographic lines.

But they said a state test administered this year would have limited value measures because of the state changes to shorten the testing time. They also expressed concerns a higher than usual number of parents would opt their kids out of testing this year, making the data less useful.

The Oregon Department of Education won’t withhold funding or take other action against districts that don’t administer tests this spring so long as they submit a plan to follow state rules in the 2021-22 school year, said Dan Farley, state director of assessment. School districts that require parents to opt in for testing would also violate state rules, he said.

“Nobody’s going to jail over this, nobody’s losing their job, nobody’s losing funding,” Sproles told Salem Reporter in an interview ahead of the board vote.

Sproles and Perry presented the board with four possible options for state testing this year, including administering the tests during the regular school day, offering testing on Monday and Saturday so as not to cut into class time, or testing only those students whose parents opted in.

The board’s discussion Tuesday centered around the value of the tests themselves, concerns over not following state rules for school operations and how the district would measure how far students have fallen behind without state testing data.

Board Chair Satya Chandragiri voted against waiving the tests, saying he was concerned about not having data to track district progress.

“The president wants our education system to get back some accountability … and also, most important, to measure how much learning loss has occurred,” Chandragiri said.

Joining him were board members Paul Kyllo and Marty Heyen. Heyen said she personally didn’t like the state tests as a measure of student performance but was concerned about the district violating state rules.

“I don’t think it’s ever right to violate the law,” Kyllo said.

Voting to skip tests this year were board Vice Chair Danielle Bethell and board members Jesse Lippold Peone, Sheronne Blasi and Kathy Goss.

Bethell said her youngest daughter is significantly behind in school after a year of online classes and that she’s always struggled with high-pressure tests.

She said she struggled between her role as a parent and a board member. But she ultimately voted not to require testing, saying the shorter in-class assessments teachers conduct provide good information on where students stand.

Other board members agreed.

“I just think the burden and the stress that comes with this test to our teachers and to our students for the limited time that we have, I don’t think it’s worth it for us to get the data that we’re going to be using when we’re already getting the data from more of the local assessments,” Lippold Peone said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.