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Increase in testing days evokes debate

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Increase in testing days evokes debate

The Southerner

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By Eli Hendler and Mary Claire Morris

According to data collected from teachers by The Southerner, on 18 of the 90 days of the fall 2014 semester, the school administered a standardized test. Testing occurred on seven days in fall 2013 and on three days in the previous two falls. 2013 and three days in both 2011 and 2012.

Each year students at Grady take state, district and school mandated standardized tests. This fall, however, teachers and students alike lament that an increase in testing has led to a greater loss of instructional time than in previous years. The results of these tests are used to assess student ability, and to determine grades and readiness to advance. Student performance on the high-stakes tests is also used to measure the teacher’s performance.

According to data collected from Grady teachers by The Southerner, approximately 20 percent of instructional days during first semester were lost to standardized testing, with roughly half of these affecting the whole school and a third affecting only language arts classes.
In the fall of 2013, by comparison, 8 percent of instructional days were impacted and only 3 percent in 2012 and 2011.

“There has been a noticeable increase [in testing] from last year to this year,” literature teacher Gary Hardy said. “You can feel the difference. … My students don’t have as many writings as I’ve had in years past because so much attention is diverted somewhere else.”

Overall in the first semester, students took 10 different standardized tests: the Writing Diagnostics, the Reading-Plus Diagnostic, the Student Learning Outcome (SLO) Pre- and Post-Assessment, the Performance Series Computer Adaptive Assessment, the Benchmark Assessment, the Georgia High School Writing Test, the Georgia Milestones test and the PSAT. The Writing Diagnostic, the Reading-Plus Diagnostic, the Common Assessment and Benchmark Assessment were implemented in 2014.

Raymond Dawson, Grady testing coordinator and Biomedical Science and Engineering pathway administrator, believes the increase in testing is likely due to district leadership turnover with Dr. Meria Carstarphen taking over as the new superintendent.

“Most times, when new leadership comes in, they like to look at what’s going on in schools too so they can make some future decisions about instruction or reorganizing or restructuring,” Dawson said.

Five of the 10 tests students took in 2014 were district-mandated, four were state-mandated and one was mandated by the school.

According to Dr. Melissa Fincher, the Georgia Department of Education deputy superintendent of assessment and accountability, standardized testing serves to provide valuable information for students and educators.

“[Standardized testing] helps us see how students are doing each year so that changes in instructional practices can be made at the school and district and state level,” Fincher said. “We use a lot of public tax dollars to support public education, and it is very important that we be able to report to the public how students are doing, how we are spending those tax dollars and kind of what their return on investment is if you will. So it serves as that accountability mechanism for the public.”

Fincher says that while standardized tests provide beneficial feedback, testing should not come at the cost of learning.

“Because of the perceived consequences of accountability tied to the tests, some schools feel the need to do a lot of test-prep type of activity,” Fincher said. “… If [standardized tests] do detract from instruction, I think instruction would be a better use of that time.”

William Caritj, APS chief accountability and information officer, believes a challenge to testing programs is implementing one which provides multiple pieces of information on course curriculum, skills and provides data.

“It’s one thing to criticize the test; it’s another if they are not giving useful information,” Cartiji said. “People will say I don’t mind giving it if it gives me useful information.”

Standardized testing ties test performance to significant rewards or punishments for students (grade promotion), teachers (bonus pay, contract renewal), schools (resource allocation) and districts (federal funds, closure). The aim is to encourage more effective and quality teaching.

Dr. Sally Zepeda, a professor of educational administration and policy at the University of Georgia, believes testing has many benefits but also that an over emphasis on testing may produce more harms than benefits.

“I’m not against standardized testing, personally or professionally, but [the status quo in Georgia] is testing on steroids, and over reliance on testing,” Zepeda said. “I have to ask, ‘What are students learning?’ … The hyper-focus on testing has taken teachers’ attention away from what is really important and that’s teaching children. Children are not numbers; all children can not be quantified.”

According to a study conducted by The American Federation of Teachers, students spend between an average of 20 to 50 hours per year on standardized tests and anywhere from 60 to more than 110 hours per year on test prep. Consequently, the estimated annual testing cost per pupil (including the cost of lost instructional time) ranges from $700 to more than $1,000 per pupil in grades with the most testing.

According to Bertis Downs, a parent advocate from Athens, the high emphasis on testing does not always produce the desired results. High-stakes tests give teachers incentives to teach to the test and, in some cases, if all efforts fail, alter the results behind close doors.

“Standardized testing is an element of destruction to teaching and learning and everyone involved,” Downs said. “You tell somebody, ‘Do a job, but here’s how you have to do it.’ So you stripped it all out then you blame them when it doesn’t work. So teachers have less control but more responsibility. That has to be a bad thing.”

SLO assessments were implemented statewide in 2013. According to Caritj, APS currently has more than 300 SLOs and they serve to test classes which are not part of state testing programs.
Administrators use SLO results to evaluate the teacher by comparing student performance on pre- and post-assessments of the same SLO exam.

“If a teacher’s results through the SLO shows there is no growth, or that there is a drop,” Dawson said, “it can have a negative impact on their overall evaluation because it would suggest that quality teaching or teaching in general has not taken place.”

Under the current system teachers are both the observed and the observer, administering and then grading the instrument that leads directly to their own assessment.

“I think [this testing process] invites unethical behavior,” said Mario Herrera, Grady literature teacher. “I think you’re always going to be questioned even if you are the most ethical simply because of the process that is put in place.”

Caritj said that the conflict of interest will soon be eliminated: “We are moving [SLOs] online, so that they are scored automatically, so that the teachers don’t have to worry about what the perception is about the testing program,” Caritj said.

The concern about this perception is due in part to the 2009 APS cheating scandal, which many observers believe was a direct outcome of high stakes standardized tests. As trials continue, nearly three dozen APS employees have faced fines or jail time for cheating allegations. Teachers and administrators have been accused of changing their students answers for funding or salary gains.

“I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect,” Downs said. “What the policy elites are doing is not really connected to the teaching and learning going on in the classroom. Larger classes, less teachers, less experienced teachers, less fulfilled teachers. … Teacher morale is at an all time low.”

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Increase in testing days evokes debate