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SBA testing / boy remote schooling

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Opinion | Schools’ state testing makes zero sense in a pandemic

SBA puts unnecessary stress on families, gathers questionable data.

I recently read in my Seattle Public Schools K-8’s weekly newsletter that we would begin interim SBA (Smarter Balanced Assessment) testing in December and January. I found this shocking since we are in the midst of a global pandemic with large numbers of Americans who in addition to the health crisis, are also experiencing unemployment, food insecurity and homelessness.  (Editor’s note: Washington’s statewide Smart Balanced testing covers math and English Language Arts for grades 3 through 8 and grade 10. Each subject takes from two and a half to four hours.) 

Since I had not heard of our school doing interim testing in previous years, other than for targeted groups, I decided to contact Seattle School District staff, school board directors, OSPI and DEEL (the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning) for more information. 

For background, I recognize that I am not a supporter of the SBA and have had both of my students opt out of taking it. I object to the SBA testing on the grounds that the test is racist, ableist and classist and that the best indicators of who will do “well” on the test are the student’s socioeconomic class. Additionally, because those of us who choose not to participate in SBA testing receive a zero rather than a null score, the results are statistically inaccurate — especially in schools with high opt-out rates, 10% or more. Because of the test design, grading and implementation, the information the tests can offer is information that teachers and the district already have access to. We know who has resources and who does not. 

My first information stop was with the city. I wanted to know if DEEL was requiring SBA testing data from levy sites for their grant funding. I heard back from Dwane Chappelle, the head of DEEL, that the city is not only not requiring SBA data, but they are also eager to be flexible and work with levy sites in this challenging time. 

Next I wrote to Dr. Diane DeBacker, chief academic officer at Seattle Public Schools, to clear up a few questions I had. She let me know that the decision to do interim SBA testing has been made by senior district staff; it is not a requirement of the state or federal government. She said classroom teachers would use the information to share with families and to inform each building’s work on their CSIP (a self-help plan in place at each school).

(Editor’s note: CSIP, an abbreviation for Continuous School Improvement Plans, is defined on the district website as “an action plan for each school that identifies the areas a school plans to focus on in the current and coming school year, the performance goals they want students to achieve, and how the school plans to collaboratively meet these goals … This document also serves as the school-wide improvement plan for our Title I schools.”)

I was able to consult with a few SPS teachers who have tremendous knowledge of SBA interim testing. I learned that there are two types of tests available, cumulative and clustered. One teacher I spoke with was frustrated because teachers have been told to administer the clustered variety, which centers on a cluster of standards, after having been told not to prioritize some of those same standards because teachers currently have so little time with the children. Teachers also noted that ordinarily they would allot a few days to interim testing, but because of the way their schedules are now, testing could monopolize an entire week of class time. Teachers are also frustrated to be asked to do something so close to the break without any advance notice and time to prepare. Teachers also mentioned the tremendous difficulty of getting testing ID numbers out to families and that third-graders will not have had experience taking the SBA test with its challenging split screen, and will be left to tackle it at home, many without support. 

Other concerns that have come up center around testing security. When a student is taking a test at school they do so in a very secure environment with stringent testing protocol. When students take tests at home, there are no guarantees that answers aren’t coming from outside sources like parents or the Internet. 

As a parent of two special-education students, one concern that I have is about testing accommodations. If students like mine were at school, they would have access to accommodations mandated in their IEPs (Individualized Education Programs, which are written plans mandated for students with special-education needs). If my students take these tests at home, while I’m working full time, my students will have zero support or accommodations. 

Further, I am concerned that once again the district didn’t read the room, as they say, before making this decision. Where was the community engagement?

None of the families I’m in regular communication with on the two PTA boards I serve on (Louisa Boren STEM K-8 and The Center School) or the two school communities of which I am a part of are clamoring for testing at this juncture. The consensus very much seems to be that we are all doing the best we can in the midst of very challenging and unsafe circumstances, and the priority should be serving students and families where they are at, not adding additional hurdles. 

So if teachers aren’t in favor of conducting interim testing, families aren’t currently in need of this information, and neither the city nor state nor federal government is asking for, or requiring this data, that only leaves the building’s CSIP plans as a reason to do this testing. I’m going to have to mention the obvious in response: Our students are not in the buildings and will not be any time soon. The idea of focusing on the traditional work of a continuous improvement plan during this time ignores the reality that we are living in a completely different mode and need to place top priority on our students and educators right now, wherever they really are. Their immediate needs come first. 

I am calling upon all families of third- to eighth graders to opt out of SBA interim testing and speak out about this unnecessary use of time and classroom resources. I am calling upon our school board directors to push back on this decision by senior district leadership and I am asking senior district leadership to reconsider this incredibly unrealistic ask of our already overtaxed educators and our students, many of whom are holding on by a thread while others are already on their way out the door. 

Conducting testing of this nature in what will be the most difficult winter of many of our lives is the wrong choice and it sends the wrong message to students and families. It makes the district look cold-hearted, out of touch and overly preoccupied with data, instead of with the very kids they should be working to serve.

Here is an SBA opt-out form with more information.

I acknowledge that I am a settler of the traditional territories of the Duwamish and Coast Salish Peoples. I honor this land and stand in solidarity with the Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest that are still facing displacement and systemic injustice.

This letter was shared previously by the author and others on local Facebook education pages.

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About the Author

Shawna Murphy

Shawna Murphy was born and raised in Seattle and has lived in South Park with her husband and children for 16 years. Shawna is a known agitator who, when she isn’t busy with her day job as a licensed child care provider, participates in activism around education, reproductive rights and normalizing the sharing of food and other resources in communities like her beloved South Park neighborhood.