Education

‘Out of control:’ Parents, teachers say too many standardized tests hurting students

A former SC teacher shares why standardized teaching drove her from the classroom

Former teacher Elizabeth Walen describes how a shift in education - away from individualized learning and towards test preparation - made her work as a teacher unpleasant.
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Former teacher Elizabeth Walen describes how a shift in education - away from individualized learning and towards test preparation - made her work as a teacher unpleasant.

Fort Mill mom Christine Dayton said she often sees two sides of her seventh-grade daughter.

First, she sees a child who is anxious and stressed as another standardized test day approaches.

“She’s very worried about that number,” Dayton said.

But her daughter’s attitude changes when she is able to focus on school work, such as creating a board game related to a history lesson.

“She’s so engaged in that process and learned so much,” Dayton said. “It’s like looking at two different children in a way.”

Federal and state laws require a number of standardized tests, and some districts test above those requirements. Several tests will be administered to South Carolina students over the next few months, according to the state department of education.

Educators and parents say students are taking too many standardized tests, cutting into instructional time, said Saani Perry, who teaches eighth-grade math and science in Fort Mill.

Perry is a board member for SC for Ed, a group of teachers and others formed last May advocating for state public education reform.

Perry, 25, is a Winthrop University graduate and has been teaching for three years. He is in his first year working in Fort Mill after leaving Richland County School District Two in Columbia, where he said it’s not unusual to administer 10 to 13 standardized tests in a school year.

“We’re testing too much,” he said. “You see teachers lose time teaching. Every year I seem to have more students who have testing anxiety.”

South Carolina’s K-12 education reform proposal, which passed in the state House and was introduced in the state Senate March 12, would eliminate some of the state’s required tests.

Just how much testing is taking place? Here one special education teacher list them for a legislative subcommittee trying to reform the state's education system.

Perry said he fears the bill does not do enough.

“I don’t know if it’s doing the best that it could,” Perry said. “Hopefully, by the time it’s done, it will fix some of those testing issues.”

The testing effect

Dayton said testing is affecting not just her middle school daughter, but her kindergarten and fourth-grade sons, too..

“Rather than giving our teachers more time to teach in the classroom, we focus very heavily on ‘teach to the test,’” Dayton said.

Too much testing could cause educators to miss opportunities with students, said Kimberly Johnson, author of “Data Doesn’t Always Determine Success: Balancing Research and Reality.” In her book, Johnson calls on educators to look beyond test scores and maximize their students’ potential.

“So many teachers went to college because they wanted to be creative, they wanted to be innovative,” she said. “Now they’re checking boxes. That’s a sad thing for me to see.”

Johnson said too much emphasis on testing inhibits creativity.

“We’re turning out people who are afraid to be wrong … if it’s not right, they feel it is a waste of time,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to get to more of that in-between stuff. That is where creativity sits, that’s where innovation sits, that’s where problem-solving and critical thinking sits.”

Measuring knowledge

Perry said while test data has a place in education, SC for Ed members would like to see South Carolina school districts stick to the federal guidelines and find other ways to measure student success.

“I’m not sure those tests are accurately reflecting the students’ true knowledge,” Perry said. “There are so many things that can happen that can alter that test score.”

Instead, districts can use something like a portfolio showcasing the student’s work throughout the school year, Perry said.

“As a teacher, I am a lot more impressed by a student’s growth throughout the year than if you can master one test,” he said.

Karen Reilly, who has a son in third grade, a daughter in eighth grade and a daughter in 11th grade in Fort Mill schools, said she started the Fort Mill Community Advocates website and Facebook page three years ago. Reilly advocates for fewer tests and a better focus on students’ mental health and the development of soft skills.

“Standardized testing has just gotten out of control. It’s become a big business,” Reilly said. “I see other districts doing things to reduce testing. I don’t see that we’ve done enough of that here.”

An “opt-out” movement was gaining steam in 2015. Perry said he had a parent in Richland County choose not to send her child to school on testing day.

“Parents know their kids are tired. Their kids are stressed when it comes to these tests,” Perry said. “Some parents believe the test scores are being used for the wrong reasons. As an educator, I wouldn’t say that I disagree.

“I think some of the scores we look at too much. We start basing our students off of numbers instead of their actual potential and what they can do,” he said.

The South Carolina education department does not have a provision allowing for the opting out of state assessments, said department spokesperson Ryan Brown. Schools are required to administer the tests to all eligible students.

Under federal law, at least 95 percent of eligible students must take the tests to hold school districts and the state accountable, Brown said. If that threshold is not met, South Carolina schools could be disqualified from receiving federal funds.

Brown said no South Carolina school district has failed to meet that requirement.

“Districts have by and large done a good job handling opt-out issues on a case-by-case basis without the need for state intervention,” he told The Herald.

Johnson said too much testing means students are constantly inundated with information and aren’t given space to process it.

“Testing is important because you need to know where young people sit, but I think we’ve gone overboard with it,” she said. “We’re pushing them almost to the point of no return, and that worries me.”

Reilly said the state should allow teachers and principals to make more of the decisions affecting their students.

“I want to see our educators, our teachers and our principals have more autonomy,” she said. “We can’t empower our kids if our teachers aren’t empowered.”

Educators weigh in on S.C. tests

A survey from the South Carolina Department of Education asks teachers which non-federally required assessments should be eliminated. As of March 5, 4,678 responses were received from teachers, school or district administrators, and parents.

  • More than 60 percent favor eliminating South Carolina Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, for social studies in grades 5 and 7.
  • More than half want the SCPASS for science to be eliminated for one grade, either sixth or eighth.
  • More than 40 percent want the state’s pre-kindergarten and kindergarten readiness assessments eliminated.
  • Less than half favored eliminating the state’s other tests, including the U.S. History and Constitution End of Course Exam, Ready to Work Career Readiness Assessment and tests related to gifted and talented ability. Just 17 percent said they favored eliminating the option of a college entrance exam.
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Amanda Harris covers issues related to children and families in York, Chester and Lancaster County for The Herald. Amanda works with local schools, parents and community members to address important topics such as school security, mental health and the opioid epidemic. She graduated from Winthrop University.


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