Friday’s Education Corner, “In the Name of Testing” former Red Clay teacher

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Sensing danger, elephants stampede, birds start chirping, and earthworms pull out of their holes. Are these wives’ tales or acute sensory perceptions? Probably a little bit of both. Here is my analogy. Professionals in the educational field from superintendents to principals to teachers have been ringing the bell and shouting from the roof tops about the misconceived storm of testing raining upon our students. We have had the data driven testing agenda for ten years. What has changed for our students? Based on the data very little. How have our schools improved? Based on the number of Priority schools and Focus schools nothing. The process of education is clearly floundering, and knowledgeable voices are being marginalized . I am looking at this through an elementary lens and this is my view.

In general, it seems pretty clear that the emphasis on testing and analytics is having an effect on schools –negatively and positively. On one hand, the oversized focus on testing clearly carries some costs to instruction, curricular breadth, student experience, and has clearly impacted public perception of our schools.Here are some specifics.

Standardized tests DO NOT measure educational quality. For over a decade we have continued to test and punish schools based on test results that have no reliability or validity to evaluate a school. The newest test is still an unproven tool that measures student achievement. Isn’t this why you take an achievement test… to determine a child’s strengths and weaknesses This is the only purpose for which it was designed. Teachers need timely authentic data from the test to inform their instruction. What do the children in that class need more of to meet the goals and expectations of the standards? This is key information to share and discuss with families. The current summative test does none of this. Teachers do get a general sense of how that student is doing. Information received in September however does nothing to supports kids and teachers throughout the previous school year..

The testing data are misleading. It is one snapshot of a child. Somedays you take a beautiful picture. On other days you want to rip the picture up. First, there is a limited number of test questions. The sample is small considering all a student is expected to learn in the course of a year. Second, scores in schools are influenced by several different factors. As examples, students who have stronger interpersonal skills will not score as well as a truly academically oriented students. Students who come from stimulus- rich environment will score better… Buildings with lower numbers of English Language learners or Special Education students will score higher. Third, a student may be two years below grade level and grow over a year and a half, and be given no recognition for this tremendous achievement. That student is still failing the test. Fourth, the identical student can negatively populate different areas of the scoring formula. These all affect test scores. Last, we have wonderful, dedicated teachers in the suburbs and in the city. Many suburban teachers started their careers in the city. We have teachers who need support in both the city and suburbs. In the suburbs, those teachers often get a pass because their students score higher on the test. This is not an indicator of a better teacher or better school. None of this speaks to the quality of education in a school.This can be accomplished in so many other ways that don’t cost millions of dollars and support the corporate intervention into public education.

Testing prep and teaching to the test take time away from real reading writing and math instruction. It has constricted the curriculum. Science, Social Studies, and the Arts are a fleeting after thought. These brightly lit avenues into learning now have detour signs.

The emphasis and time spent on high stakes testings undermines the love of learning that teachers spend hours developing in elementary classrooms. Students can’t collaborate to think through a math solution, or read slowly to savor a text. or read a complete book. They can not check the word wall to help them understand unfamiliar words. Just take the test. If that joy of school is non-existent in elementary school, how will these students become ‘college and career ready’?

It is the test that is failing our students and staff not vice versa. The goal of education has become to pass the test not learning and creating. Relationships with classmates and becoming caring citizens have taken a backseat. The curricula are in constant flux to meet the changing challenges of the test. In elementary classrooms teaching should be aligned to the individual needs of the learner. It is difficult to do both. Teachers need to know the standards and follow a scope and sequence of skills.This way consistent formative assessments can be created.

This all said, the upside of this current hollow educational agenda is that we’re seeing substantially more attention shined on underserved populations – especially poor and minority students or those with special needs. This begs the question- Do schools with high concentrations of under served students have the capacity to reach these goals? In today’s environment, I believe not. Why? According to the US Department of Education (2013) crushing poverty and parent economic status impact student achievement the most. It is not leadership or teachers. Schools, principals and teachers are willing to be held accountable. We need the District, the City, and the State to be accountable. You are either part of the problem or part of the solution. This state has given away over a hundred million dollars on testing, Race to the Top and consultants but not to our kids. These dollars could pay for quality day care and pre school. Money given to corporations to create tests could be given to educators in collaboration with DoE to develop strong assessment tools, lower class size and provide wrap around services.What are our priorities? Does the State have a Theory of Action, a funded class size mandate? Will the State work with the city on job development and housing issues? The City needs to play an active role in a solution to the education and social woes of Wilmington. Each of us needs to support our future.

I believe that In the long run, tests that are less intrusive and time consuming than today’s are within reach.We continue to embrace the idea that our students are all at the start line each year. They are not. With enough public clamor the big springtime summative test will disappear It should particularly at the elementary level. Authentic performance tasks, portfolios, growth tests that inform instruction in a timely manner, should become the norm. Schools are more than a test. Our children are more than a number

Insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results. This insanity needs to stop. The data results have not changed in over a decade. Listen, the clock IS ticking.

Lee Davis – former Red Clay teacher and former Red Clay Board President

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