Fund schools, not tests: Portland teachers sponsor family fun in Pioneer Square

Quality Schools FestivalPortland-metro-area teachers unions are throwing a party Oct. 19 at Pioneer Courthouse Square, offering free pumpkins, face-painting … and standardized tests.

Yes, standardized tests. As part of the Portland Association of Teachers’ Quality Education Festival, one booth will give parents and kids a chance to answer sample questions from the new test that fourth graders are slated to take this Spring. The Smarter Balanced Assessment is part of a nationwide roll-out of high-stakes tests the federal government is attempting to impose on states.

Ironically, the test itself is incomplete and untested. Students will use computers to take the Smarter Balanced test, but software glitches have plagued early run-throughs, and sections of the test like social studies haven’t yet been developed. In May, the Representative Assembly of 48,000-member Oregon Education Association (OEA) approved a resolution calling for a statewide moratorium on the test. And the National Education Association, of which OEA is an affiliate, is supporting a bill in Congress to lessen the number of federally-mandated standardized tests.

PAT Vice President Suzanne Cohen — a science and math teacher at Peninsula Middle School — says people who take the sample Smarter Balanced test at the booth will be surprised how challenging it is.

“It’s not that we’re against challenging tests,” Cohen said. “It’s the high stakes associated with this test. This test has yet to be validated or proven, and yet they want to use it to measure students, schools and teachers, and school districts. And we just really question this notion that funding should be based on this, or that a school would be rated positively or negatively based on test scores.”

States are spending $1.7 billion a year on standardized tests, according to the Brookings Institution — money that could be going to instruction. That’s particularly a problem in Oregon, where school funding has declined steadily and dramatically over the past two decades when adjusted for inflation. After successive rounds of budget cuts and belt-tightening, Oregon schools today are less likely to have art, music, dance, and drama offerings than they used to. High school foreign language offerings are less robust. Shop class is a distant memory. Schools have fewer nurses, librarians, and counselors. High-quality, properly-staffed maintenance of school grounds and physical plant are a thing of the past.  And in the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity, many elementary schools lack physical education teachers, and cafeterias are heating and serving processed foods to save on labor costs.

So the event in the square is a kind of launch party, to take forward the public campaign Portland Association of Teachers waged when it faced down district managers in February’s near-strike. PAT won contract gains, including an agreement that teachers won’t be graded based on scores on student tests that weren’t designed for that purpose. But union leaders say that’s only the beginning. The event in the square is meant to demonstrate three principles: That students deserve to be a funding priority for the state, that a student is more than a test score, and that strong schools build strong communities.

“We want students and families engaged and involved,” Cohen said. “It can’t just be teachers.”

PAT and over a dozen metro-area sister locals are taking part in the event, backed by OEA. Besides free pumpkins and popcorn, the Quality Education Festival will feature student performances led by licensed teachers, a fun photo booth, and a video booth for participants to record statements on what kind of education they think Oregon students deserve. The festival runs from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland.

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