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Tests could aid struggling education system

The (Eugene) Register-Guard

Rob Saxton, who stepped down last week as Oregon's deputy superintendent of public instruction, inadvertently fueled the rebellion against the new Smarter Balanced tests when he predicted that about two-thirds of students would fail them. The state, critics charged, was raising the bar too high, and then branding students as failures when they couldn't clear it. But Saxton and critics alike underestimated students' capabilities, which should lead all Oregonians to recognize the potential usefulness of the Smarter Balanced tests.

The tests are designed to measure whether third- through eighth-graders and juniors in high school are mastering the skills set forth in the Common Core, a set of standards adopted by about 40 states, including Oregon in 2010. The idea is to ensure that students throughout the country learn what they will need to succeed in college or careers, and to measure whether that learning is taking place. The Smarter Balanced tests are expected to be of particular value in comparing educational results among states, and in showing whether particular groups of students, such as those from low-income or minority families, are getting the education they deserve.

Saxton's prediction was based on the fact that the Smarter Balanced tests are tougher than the tests Oregon used before, and on the fact that about 70 percent of students enrolling in the state's community colleges require some form of remedial education. The latter statistic is strong evidence that large numbers of students aren't learning all they should by the time they finish high school.

But when results from the first round of testing came in last week, they brought a pleasant surprise: Students far exceeded Saxton's expectation. About 55 percent met or surpassed the Common Core standard in reading, and 45 percent met or surpassed the standard in math. Five percent of the tests have yet to be scored, and those results are expected to pull the averages down, but it's clear that about half of Oregon students have risen to the challenge of the Common Core. The percentage should rise in future years as teachers and students become more familiar with curricula designed to serve the standards.

The test results can be interpreted as showing that Oregon's educational glass is half full, or that it's half empty — but what's more important is how the information is used. In addition to the fear that poor results would be used to shame students, critics have worried that they would be used to evaluate teachers, despite assurances that neither would occur, at least initially. But the best use will be as a tool for evaluating the education system as a whole.

Such a tool would be valuable in several ways. Test data will allow Oregon to find and strengthen those aspects of Oregon school curricula that are helping students meet the standards, and also to identify areas of weakness that need to be corrected. Special efforts can be made to address the needs of groups of students who are found to be falling short of the standards. And Oregon can compare the results of its education system to results in other states, and do what it can to implement the best practices developed elsewhere.

Students in Washington state, for instance, outperformed their counterparts in Oregon at most grade levels. The two states' levels of education spending are about the same, so a search can begin for other factors affecting student achievement.

As comparable results come in from more states, the strengths and deficiencies of Oregon's schools will come into sharper focus. Oregon's school year, among the shortest in the nation, and its class sizes, among the biggest in the nation, are likely to be found to affect student performance, providing evidence-based arguments for efforts to address both problems. The first-year results are not as bad as feared, but certainly can be better — and the Smarter Balanced tests can help the state identify the most effective and urgent improvements.