Test, test, test

Sandra Clark

As a student, I loved tests and hated grades. Grades are subjective, based on a teacher’s whim. Kids who got the best grades often became teachers – the kinship of those who color within the lines.

Tests, on the other hand, are objective declarations of what one knows and how she stacks up against local and national peers.

My school had a spelling quiz every Friday and one year-end assessment. I expected to score 100 on every spelling test and beamed proudly when I saw my ranking on the year-end test. Grades didn’t matter.

Today that kid would be a basket case, and her parents should darn well pay attention and advocate for her. Here’s why:

■  Taxpayers (especially the big ones) got fed up with school budgets that go only up while student outcomes go mostly down.
Politicians reacted.

■  The public education machine had gotten rigid, they said, with tenure laws that protected bad teachers and dumbed-down tests that lulled us into believing that we had reached the Lake Woebegon state of “every child above average.”

■  Bam! Legislatures blew up tenure and required national test standards. They imposed appointed superintendents and nonpartisan school boards. Foundations jumped in to fund a myriad of business-model staff evaluations and student assessments. Any spark of teacher creativity was squelched in favor of standardization, and when teachers protested, they were termed troublemakers who fail to share the vision.

We saw 50-some teachers “non-tenured” last spring and a similar number this year. Non-tenure is career-ending, and nobody has to tell the victims why.

Last week, Betty Bean wrote about Christina Graham at Copper Ridge. This week she writes about Gloria Ray-Scheberle at Mount Olive. Two very different teachers; both non-tenured.

Superintendent Jim McIntyre says Knox County Schools would never retaliate against a teacher for speaking out at a public meeting. I believe that. But what about those teachers who might challenge their principal during the weekly indoctrination benignly called the PLC (professional learning community)?

Principals are under tremendous stress to raise test scores. Their own evaluation depends on how successfully they whip the teachers into shape. I’d bet the veteran teacher at Mount Olive was canned for challenging a relatively new and eager-to-please principal; I’d bet the idealistic young teacher at Copper Ridge was just too lively for her more staid principal.

The principals had the authority to non-tenure them, but was it fair? Was it good for kids? These are the questions Jim McIntyre must ask.

Parents should worry about their kid whose self-esteem depends on out-performing her peers. How does that kid survive in a system of pre-test tests, practice tests, tests and post-test tests?

And what about the kid who values good grades and loves school? How does he approach the high-stakes test that could determine his teacher’s continued employment?

Excessive testing makes the kids who care anxious while further shutting down the kids who cannot keep pace: special ed, English-language learners, itinerant, low IQ.

Excessive testing is bad for kids; we should make it stop.

Parents question testing at forum

Cindy Buttry found her voice at a community forum last week on student testing.

The former school board member who voluntarily term-limited was a parent representative at the meeting held June 2 at West High School.

Speaking for one breakout group, Buttry said Knox County Schools needs transparency in testing.

“Teachers, parents and students are entitled to the results of the tests as soon as they are given,” she said.

Parents should know why a test is important; should know the cost, both in money and time; and should know whether the kids are being tested on what they are being taught.

“Parents need a non-punitive opt-out policy,” she said. “We need consistency from school to school, and teachers should not be evaluated on test data.”

Buttry rarely spoke so strongly or succinctly while on the school board.

Laurie Driver, supervisor of assessment, said the past couple of years have been hard on teachers and students.

“We’ve had our foot in two different worlds,” using the old TCAP tests while preparing students for the new assessments that are coming.

“The new assessments, called TNReady, are much richer, more authentic. They are more than just a multiple-choice test. They are task-driven.

“We’ve been … giving both and that’s part of why it feels like a lot.”

Driver said the state will roll out TNReady tests this year in reading and math, and she expects a revamped social studies test the next year.

“Hopefully, then we’ll be in a stable place,” she said.

Much information is available online at the Tennessee Department of Education’s website.

We’ve linked on the Shopper website to a handout Driver gave parents at the community forum.

The “assessment landscape” is two pages of tightly typed lists of tests used this past year in Knox County Schools.

The school system discontinued SAT-10 testing after teachers argued the tests were developmentally inappropriate.

Dr. Jim McIntyre announced on Oct. 28 that he would discontinue the SAT-10 test for kindergarten students but he wanted to continue it for first and second graders.

On Nov. 3, the school board voted 6-2 to stop SAT-10 testing completely. Board members Gloria Deathridge and Karen Carson stuck with McIntyre, while Lynne Fugate was absent.

On March 2, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen appointed a 17-member task force to identify best practices in testing and whether Tennessee requires too many.

Local members are state Rep. Harry Brooks and Virginia Babb, representing the Knox County Council PTA.

McQueen expects a report in late summer.

But back to last week’s meeting.

Megan Morris spoke for the early elementary group. Their priorities:

  1. Do not base teacher evaluations on tests.
  2. Measure the talents of all children, not just those who are good at standardized testing.
  3. Make time for play-based learning and hands-on activities because kids are spending too much time drilling for assessments.

Katie Smith reported for the elementary group:

  1. We are losing a joy of learning from our children and a joy of teaching from our teachers by focusing so much on testing.
  2. Too much emphasis on testing and the timed computerized tests are anxiety-producing with a little clock showing time remaining.
  3. Infrastructure: We lack computers in some schools and have limited Internet access in others. The tests tie up the school libraries which are used as a testing lab.

Mike Smith and David Williams, both graduates of West High School, spoke for the high school group. Smith said his son just finished his freshman year at West High. Their concerns included:

  1. With so many required tests, extracurricular activities and related arts suffer.
  2. There’s a big mystery about mandated tests. Teachers can’t review the test; can’t find out what students missed, etc.
  3. Test anxiety
  4. Loss of instructional time

Parents of kids with special needs are concerned that KCS gathers information on skill levels and abilities that do not show true abilities because of standardized tests.

There appears to be a conflict-of-interest with teachers, whose bonuses are affected by test outcomes, deciding on a child’s IEP (individualized education program), they said.

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