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Teaching vs. testing
Some educators question the increasingly costly ‘data-driven’ approach to local education
A scene from a recent Charles Ellis field trip to Tybee Island - photo by Sabrina Manganella

BY DESIGN, reforms to the Savannah/Chatham County public schools have created an entrenched system of accountability relying on standardized test scores and rewarding standardization over innovation.

Interviews with teachers and parents make it clear that those frustrated with the changes in the district are not averse to turning the system around. Yet many see the reforms going contrary to their hopes and aspirations for their students.

It comes down to a philosophy:

Do we educate children on a factory model, with “data-driven decision making,” and standardization of classroom learning or do we foster a love of learning and emphasize critical thinking and problem solving?

Do build higher order thinking by engaging children’s natural curiosity... or do we teach them what is on today’s state-mandated curriculum – regardless of the students’ abilities or interests?

No child left behind?

There is no doubt that the school board and their superintendent, Thomas Lockamy, are sincere in reforming the school system.

While the No Child Left Behind Act remains law, the school system is under incredible pressure to keep schools off the “needs improvement” list, which is determined by standardized test scores. Totally reforming a struggling school system under the constant pressure of NCLB is a monumental task.

When Lockamy was hired in 2005 15 schools were on the federal “needs improvement list.” Now just eight remain on the list. Surely this is something to celebrate.

But as we narrow our focus, are we losing sight of the larger picture?

Michael Petrilli wrote the most comprehensive primer on the No Child Left Behind Act, and supported the bill while at the U.S. Department of Education. While still a believer in the intent of NCLB, he wrote this in a 2007 National Review article:

“I’ve gradually and reluctantly come to the conclusion that NCLB as enacted is fundamentally flawed and probably beyond repair... The anecdotes (and increasingly, evidence) keep rolling in of schools turning into test-prep factories.”

When teachers are protesting the reforms, holding signs that say, “Teach not Test,” and “134 days of Testing,” one wonders whether Chatham County has become one of those ill-fated test-prep factories.

Data costs money

Right now, local schools are throwing money at what they hope will be a panacea for our educational woes: data collection.

The total budget for Student Assessment and Evaluation jumped from $249,232 in 2004, to $650,608 in 2007, to $1,697,137 in 2008.

Salaries in that office also jumped, from $113,906 in 2004, to $358,315 in 2007, to $614,604 in 2008. These new jobs and this new large bureaucratic structure will define our school system for years to come.

How much testing is too much? Third graders must take a series of 18 standardized tests throughout the year, not including the many practice tests they use to prepare for some assessments.

Some tests take a few hours, some take about a week. They include:

• CRCT (Criterion Referenced Competency Test)

• Iowa Test of Basic Skills

• Rigby Reading Evaluation and Diagnostic

• Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills

• Quarterly Assessment Achievement Series

• Quarterly Assessment Performance Series

• Grade Three Writing Assessment.

The only test mandated by No Child Left Behind Act is the CRCT. The remaining are state and district-mandated standardized tests.

Because many of the tests are spread out over a series of days, third grade teachers say students take a standardized test about 75 days a year.

“The time spent testing defies logic,” says parent Julie Varland. “It’s the tail wagging the dog.”

It’s also a cash-cow for those in the testing industry, and in the affiliated industries, which consult with school systems on data interpretation, like the for-profit “Leadership and Learning Center,” which consults with the District to help teachers create “data teams” and make “data driven decisions.”

Scantron, who has earned one of Chatham County’s largest testing contracts, earned $78 million in 2007, and is a subsidiary of M and F Worldwide Corporation whose net revenues for the fourth quarter of 2007 were $458.8 million.

School spokesman Bucky Burnsed explains that the district has added more standardized tests, most notably the Quarterly Assessments, because they need accurate information, throughout the year, so they can address problems nimbly.

“The way it was done in the past, was the kids worked all year long, and we prayed and hoped for the best, and at the end of the year, we got an autopsy report,” Burnsed says.

“The reason we do the assessments, is that they give us a snapshot of where we are two months into the year, four months into the year, and onward, so we can make corrections on the fly, instead of waiting until the end of the year,” explains Burnsed.

When asked about the quarterly assessments, Belinda Jackson*, a teacher at Windsor Forest High School, says “We are on an AB schedule, so we don’t see our kids nearly enough. The quarterly assessments take up an entire 70 minute period, and they are testing on general seventh and eighth grade stuff. In order for a testing program to be useful, it has to cover what we’ve taught. A lot of my kids don’t bother to do it. They know it doesn’t count, so they mark anything, take a nap. It’s a wasted day.”

(Editor’s Note: An asterisk means the name has been changed at the teacher’s request for fear of job repercussions.)

Experienced elementary teachers, who spend all day with a small group of kids, many find the tests redundant.

“I know which one can’t read. I know which one is struggling emotionally, I know which one has trouble with higher order thinking skills, I know which one doesn’t know his math facts,” says Andrea Lewis,* a reading specialist and elementary teacher at Charles Ellis Montessori Academy.

“I don’t disagree with gathering solid information about a child’s progress. My problem is with the amount of time spent accessing students,” Lewis says, pointing out that before NCLB, Charles Ellis had a zero-cost Montessori-based assessment system which the teachers used effectively as a teaching tool.

Other schools had something more old-fashioned: Remember mid-terms and final exams?

Long-term strategy

Not all local teachers have negative things to say about the current state of the district, however. Some say the reforms will pay off in the long run.

“It might be a little overbearing at times, but we have to look at the direction we’re heading, and the direction the superintendent is trying to lead us. He’s trying to get us off the ‘needs improvement’ list,” says Lessie Porter a 32-year-veteran teacher, now at Myers Middle School.

“A lot of the teachers are angry. They say why do I have to do all this extra stuff. But it’s not about us. It’s about the students,” says Porter. “These are the lives we are trying to mold. It’s about having high expectations for them, and pushing them the extra mile to do it.”

Porter says she gears her teaching toward CRCT testing from January onward, and practices with the children three to four days a week, using drills and energized student competitions to help boost scores.

She uses the school’s data teams to strategize with other teachers about helping kids whose scores are low, and uses test scores to help fine tune her teaching, so she doesn’t waste time covering material that the kids have already mastered.

Porter’s approach is exactly what the school administrators have in mind. She says children used to play tic-tac-toe on the standardized tests, but now they try hard, because they have begun to see that they will need to pass a test to graduate, to get a job, or to go to college.

Test scores in middle schools have improved significantly in the past two years, and some test scores in high schools have improved. But many test scores in elementary schools have dropped since Lockamy took over in 2005.

Most dramatic are the fifth grade writing assessments. When the test was realigned in 2007 to coordinate with the Georgia Performance Standards, test scores across the board went down, around 20 percent.

But in schools where almost all the students receive free lunch, like Butler, Garrison, Gadsden, Haven, and Hodge, scores plummeted, all down from the somewhere in the ninetieth percentile to the 40th and 50th percentiles. This is notable, because the writing assessments are the only essay-style tests.

Inspired to inspire

We are now living on the “Creative Coast.” We are spending tax dollars recruiting businesses that will hire out-of -the-box thinkers, problem solvers, and innovators. Are we preparing public school children for these jobs?

Our current Georgia Performance Standards-based curriculum, now spells out what each teacher should teach, almost down to the day, tying the curriculum to upcoming standardized tests. But it doesn’t take into account the passion of teachers, and the passion of teachers is what makes education inspiring.

Teachers Leigh Mesco and Laura Filson spent one summer break attending a ten-day intensive teachers’ seminar in San Salvador, learning about fresh water and salt water habitats.

Last spring, they organized a field trip to Tybee Island, where most of Charles Ellis’s second and third graders learned a series of specific science lessons at the beach.

Are we creating incentives for this type of innovative teaching style? When teachers understand a subject intimately, take the time to gain expertise in a subject, they can make it come alive for their students.

How many public school kids in our district have never been to the beach, never felt the sand between their toes?

This is not an idle question. Children’s bodies are made to run and play. They ask a million questions, and are always trying to figure out how things work.

Does our public education system adequately respond to what motivates and inspires children?

Just because too many children in Chatham County’s public school system are impacted by poverty, surrounded by crime, and are too-often the victims of abuse, does not make thinking seriously about “inspiring children” impractical. Poor kids don’t live in a world where a newly paved road leads straight toward college and employment.

“When you force feed knowledge into kids, they will regurgitate it later for a test, but they will never have an appetite for learning. They won’t process it properly. You need to nurture their intellect, rather than force feed it,” says Martha Mythlo, a kindergarten teacher at Charles Ellis.

Some high school teachers complain that too many students are disengaged.

“There are a lot of kids who are not there to learn. They are there to sell drugs and be with their buddies and cause trouble,” says Jackson.

“At least 50 percent of my students are failing. I’ve just been adding up my grades. I have kids with a 2, an 11, for the year,” says Jackson.

Another high school teacher, from Jenkins says, “I have kids who come to my class every day and put their head down on the desk, and cover it with their hood, and go to sleep.”

Intellectual splendor

Maria Montessori, one of the world’s best known developers of curriculum for inner city impoverished children, said:

“We cannot know the consequences of suppressing a child’s spontaneity when he is just beginning to be active. We may even suffocate life itself. That humanity which is revealed in all its intellectual splendor during the sweet and tender age of childhood should be respected with a kind of religious veneration.”

Mythlo understands this intellectual splendor, and with little children, 4-6 years old, she captivates their innate love of learning and spins it into gold.

While in her class, my five-year-old learned the Latin names for all the bones of her body. She performed Shakespeare. She raced ahead in math, bragging about adding in the thousands and carrying numbers. She learned to read. Everyday, she literally danced home, talking about some new wonder Ms. Martha explored with the class.

When parents heard she had given her notice at Charles Ellis, they were devastated. “I’m sorry for all the kids who won’t get her for a teacher in the future,” says Angela Burson, whose daughter spent two years in Mythlo’s class.

When I ask Mythlo what the school administrators could do to change her mind, she says, “Come to our classrooms, spend time there, do your own first-hand research. See for yourself what our teachers are saying.”

Mythlo adds:

“There are moments of pure joy when you are teaching. It is like free-form skiing down an untracked slope. You are fully engaged, continually responding, readjusting, and kids are getting new concepts left and right,” she says.

“Then, out of the blue, a barrier stands in your way. Whether it is some new test, or more paperwork, the end result is the same. You have to stop teaching. And I just ask myself, why? Why?”

Julie Varland, who has helped form the new Chatham County Parent Coalition, says “I hate to think that teachers think they have to put their job on their line to speak out. That’s where the parents and community leaders need to get involved and hold our school system accountable.”

Chatham County Parent Coalition

What: Parents discuss a county-wide coalition concerned that rising standardized test scores may not demonstrate an improved educational outcome. When: Tuesday, April 29, 6 p.m.Where: Saint Paul's Episcopal Church(corner of 34th and Abercorn Streets). Child care provided.Info: 247-7911.