Standardized testing is a debilitating silver bullet

Susie Kaeser

For a child, the 180 days of a school year can feel like an eternity, but this is not so for teachers.

Under the gun to squeeze more and more into the annual teaching window, teachers have too little time to effectively plan lessons and cover ever-expanding content, get to know children and respond to their needs, communicate with parents, overcome any effects of inequality, digest yet another set of standards (the Common Core) and the latest format for testing those standards (the PARCC assessments) and then administer all the mandated high-stakes tests.

Lawmakers have made tests the silver bullet for education reform in the 21st century, and as Mark Swaim-Fox, a teacher who visits schools across Ohio, told me, it is “sucking the life out of the classroom.” Children, the presumed beneficiaries of these policies, are paying a price for this unsavory elixir: greater pressure to meet standards and less opportunity to learn.

I interviewed five teachers in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights district who kept a running record of time they spent during the first 10 weeks of this school year complying with testing-based requirements. The test-taking burden is not uniform by grade level or subject, but all five teachers were upset by the loss of precious time for teaching and planning. They are disheartened by the dominance of test-driven education. It adds little value to learning, interferes with best practices and takes the joy out of teaching.

Time on task is crucial to learning, yet two new layers of tests are diverting even more time away from instruction. Ohio’s new teacher evaluation system (OTES) requires that all teachers be measured by the growth of their students, and, in districts such as CH-UH that underperform, teachers are following the Ohio Improvement Process (OIP), which requires them to develop and administer “common assessments.” More time taken up by tests.

Planning time, already a scarce educational resource, is also being sacrificed to test-related activities. Teachers use their planning period, lunch and family time to design and grade tests that don’t help them, to enter data into a system whose use is unknown and to generate data that is either irrelevant or that they don’t have time to use. These new hoops have little to do with supporting their effectiveness, and a lot to do with increasing stress. It keeps them from focusing on what matters: teaching.

Darrell Lausche, a third-grade teacher at Gearity Professional Development School, told me, “Testing is driving instruction, not the other way around.”

Responsibility for ensuring that his young students pass the state reading test weighs heavily on Lausche, who works a 10-hour day, skips lunch and loses sleep. On seven different days during the 47 days of the first quarter, his students spent between 30 minutes and three hours taking state-mandated tests, including the Ohio Achievement Assessment which will determine if they move to fourth grade next year, “common assessments” mandated by the Ohio Improvement Process and a math assessment by which he will be evaluated.

Lausche devoted four planning periods to grading assessments, and entering them in ThinkGate, the state database. In addition, his team met over lunch at least once a week to fill in forms in preparation for their regular weekly team meeting required by the OIP. For Lausche, “None of these assessments are as informative as working day to day with my students.”

Karen Kastor teaches algebra to ninth-graders. During the first quarter, she spent an average of one out of every eight class periods giving some kind of state-mandated test. Her tests satisfied an OIP requirement or established value-added metrics by which she will be evaluated. Similarly, a large part of her planning time was spent on testing.

One of the days that school was closed for professional development was devoted to testing-related topics—not instruction. In addition, she spent the equivalent of approximately 14 planning periods out of a possible 47 writing, reviewing, grading or entering results of tests required by OIP or OTES.

What affects teachers affects children. In a witch hunt for recalcitrant teachers, our elected leaders have created a perfect disaster: a system that requires children to learn more and ensures that more and more children will fail and that the inspired teachers who know how to reach them will give up trying.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 2, Posted 3:20 PM, 01.29.2015