Pushing back on high-stakes testing

Sharon teachers Dorothy Macoritto, Lori Leveckis and Kathleen Turner, from left to right, gathered recently at Sharon High School to share their perspectives on high-stakes testing. Sharon teachers Dorothy Macoritto, Lori Leveckis and Kathleen Turner, from left to right, gathered recently at Sharon High School to share their perspectives on high-stakes testing.

Sharon High School biology teacher Zach Snow is on a mission to support public schools that excite students about learning. To him, that means reducing the emphasis on standardized tests and restoring play, exploration, creativity and a whole range of content-rich subjects to the curriculum, especially in the early grades.

“Education is rapidly becoming a $1 trillion industry,” Snow said in testimony to the Sharon School Committee last June. “Yet public schools are not the schools that billionaires are sending their kids to. They send their kids to schools with low class sizes, schools with teachers who write their own tests, schools with diverse, enriching curricula, field trips and recess — schools that we deserve in Sharon! — not to schools that are beholden to these tests.”

Snow is just one of many MTA members pushing back against high-stakes testing and finding a lot of common ground with administrators, parents and students. A PDK/Gallup poll released in August found that 67 percent of public school parents agreed that there is “too much emphasis on standardized testing in the public schools” in their communities. Only 8 percent said there is “not enough,” while 20 percent said the amount is “about right.” Five percent said they didn’t know.

The numbers are even more striking among educators. In a poll of MTA members in January, 86 percent said there is “too much” emphasis on such tests, while only 1 percent said there is “not enough.”

Now the struggle is to get policies to mirror what most parents and educators want: less testing, more learning. Local efforts to that end have been sprouting up across the state and country.

In Fall River, the local association persuaded the School Committee in January to join other school committees by passing a resolution in support of an MTA-backed bill calling for a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing.

In Westborough, the local association and administration are doing as little as legally possible to implement District-Determined Measures created for the purpose of evaluating educators.

In Cambridge, the local association urged the School Committee to reject switching to PARCC tests this year, knowing that would mean subjecting students to three different tests in three years: MCAS, PARCC and MCAS 2.0. The association lost by one vote but continues to make the case that students are more than a score.

In Franklin, the local association pushed back against Teaching Strategies GOLD and successfully reduced how much time teachers must spend on this kindergarten assessment. Now, local association President Donna Grady is planning to opt her own children out of any tests that she doesn’t believe will benefit them directly.

In New York State, 240,000 students opted out of standardized tests last year. The opt-out movement is going strong in other states as well, and some would like to see it take off in Massachusetts.

Snow’s efforts in Sharon are a good example of organizing to broaden the conversation about testing. His involvement began when his oldest child entered kindergarten last year.

"The kids are tested out. There is a lot of anxiety and burnout."

— Bernadette Murphy

“It felt like the pressure to do well on tests had trickled down to kindergarten,” Snow said. The curriculum, he said, “was a lot more didactic than I had expected. And there was a large focus on drilling math and sight words at the expense of learning about science and social studies. As for experiential learning through play and socialization, it seemed to reflect the recent studies suggesting that kindergarten is the new first grade.

“Obviously, I want my kids to read and do math,” Snow continued, “but it all seemed so disconnected from content.”

Snow started reading about the issue and talking to other parents.

“I would talk to parents at soccer games and birthday parties,” he said. “I was ‘that guy’ at the party who would ask other parents about their own kids’ experiences in school. Almost everyone I talked to said, ‘Yeah, tell me about it.’ And I thought that, well, if everyone agrees, why are we doing education this way?”

The focus on testing was relatively new to Snow since he teaches high school biology, which is not an MCAS-tested subject in Sharon; most students take the introductory physics test to fulfill the graduation requirement.

“I have a huge amount of freedom to teach the way I believe is best,” Snow said.

Snow started a Facebook group called Sharon Parents & Teachers for Less Testing & More Learning, and in June, he and his group asked the School Committee to support the moratorium bill and engage in a larger discussion about the role of testing.

While the Sharon School Committee declined to pass a resolution backing the moratorium bill, the members did ask the state to delay using PARCC results to make high-stakes decisions. They also formed an advisory committee of teachers, parents and administrators to analyze the role of testing in the district and to make recommendations on how to strike a better balance.

Several teacher-members of the advisory committee and Bernadette Murphy, president of the Sharon Teachers Association, gathered at Sharon High School in December to share their perspectives. The views they expressed are similar to the ones that MTA members have expressed at forums, during listening tours and in educator lunchrooms throughout the state.

Murphy said that the STA fully supports the efforts of the parent and teacher group and the advisory committee. “My kids go to the Boston Public Schools,” she said. “The kids are tested out. There is a lot of anxiety and burnout.”

“They are spending millions of dollars on the test, but meanwhile my son’s school budget is being cut,” she added. “In Boston they don’t have a lot of the extras that Sharon has. And now it looks like his class size is going to get bigger.”

Kathleen Turner, a Sharon High School French teacher who was named the 2013 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, spoke for colleagues in tested grades and subjects when she noted, “They tell us to differentiate instruction, but then measure performance by making kids take the same test. It doesn’t make sense.”

Teacher Dorothy Macoritto questioned how useful the test results are in measuring growth. Speaking about her own children, who attend the nearby Canton Public Schools, she said, “It seems like my kids are taking tests constantly, but how are evaluators going to use the results to measure growth? If a kid gets 100 on the pretest and 100 at the end of the year, you won’t show growth. Does that mean the teacher is bad? What if she gets a 50 on the pretest and a 60 at the end of the year? What does it all mean?”

Snow said that his research has helped him understand why the testing regimen is so hard to change. “There is a lot of money going into private pockets,” he said.

He believes that educators can make changes in their own practice now, even while continuing to push for new laws.

“In a place like Sharon, where the students do very well, we have more flexibility than we might think,” he said. “The amount of time students spend actually taking state tests is small — maybe 2 to 3 percent of the time. It’s the high stakes attached to the results that lead to so much time being spent preparing for these tests instead of fostering a love of learning. But we do have some control over the other 98 percent of our time. We need to exercise that control.”

Snow has a strong personal interest in the outcome of the debate, since his second child will soon be in the public schools.

“Some people suggested that I start saving up money to send our sons to a private school,” Snow said. “That didn’t sit well with me. I’m a proud public school teacher. I’m not going to do that until I really give this my best effort — to see what we can do about it.”

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