True or false: Schools give too many standardized tests.
Apparently, that's a no-brainer. Parents, students, teachers, school administrators -- all answer with a resounding "true!"
From the time Beaufort County public-school students enter kindergarten until the time they graduate, they will spend at least 150 hours taking standardized tests.
That's the equivalent of 22 seven-hour school days -- roughly half of a nine-week grading period -- devoted to assessing progress rather than making it, in some educators' estimation.
"Do we have too many?" asked David Whittemore, chairman of the Education Oversight Committee. "If you talk to anyone in education, whether it be teachers, administrators or students, they will tell you that we do."
The alphabet soup of examinations required for all students includes MAP tests, HSAP tests and PASS tests.
But it does not include the PSAT, the ACT or AP and IB tests. If students take some of those optional tests as they reach high-school age -- and many students do -- then they could test for as many as 240 hours, or 34 school days.
And soon, a new set of tests will be coming down the pipeline as the S.C. Department of Education, the General Assembly and school districts work to settle on assessments aligned with Common Core standards, which have been adopted by most states.
This is the first in a three-part series by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette that examines the amount of standardized testing, its direct and indirect effects, and what, if anything, might be done to rein in the assessment overload.
"We test everything. And we test some things that we really don't need to test, but there are state and federal regulations that require us to do so much testing," district superintendent Jeff Moss said.
"We should be able to somehow come together and say, 'These are the tests we're going to use,' " he said, "but I don't know how that's going to happen."
HIGH STAKES GAME
In 2000, the typical student entering school in Beaufort County could expect to take about 15 to 20 required standardized tests before graduating. By 2013, that number had grown to more than 60.
And as the number of tests has grown, so have the stakes.
Results can affect students' academic opportunities, schools' compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind law and states' and districts' funding. The state Department of Education spent roughly $28 million this year on state and federally mandated assessments, according to spokesman Dino Teppara. The agency's Office of Assessment was allocated just more than that to implement those tests.
And as another piece of the high stakes game, many attempts to peg teacher pay to their students' performance lean heavily on test results.
Often, students bear the brunt of that monumental pressure, according to a former Beaufort County School District teacher of the year.
"When you talk about collateral damage of standardized testing, I think what we're talking about is the tremendous effect of students being overstressed," Hilton Head Island High School math teacher Christine Gray said. "They are worried about every single test, all the time."
Students should be concerned about their performance, Gray says. However, "this pressure has somehow turned into the test being the only thing."
"It is not the only thing."
Students start taking standardized tests -- an assessment that is administered, scored and interpreted in the same manner for all test-takers -- from the time they enter kindergarten all the way through high school. Many said they feel as if they are taking a different test every month.
"While you're in the public school system, you have these enormous standardized-test demands," Hilton Head High junior Rachel Wilbourne said. "It's easy to lose sight of their purpose because there's no degree of individualism; it's just a comparative measurement."
Students in high school take the fewest required standardized tests, anywhere from none to three a year, depending on the grade level. However, that number jumps if students take optional tests like the ACT, SAT, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams.
Students in middle school and the later grades of elementary school take as many as eight standardized tests each year, many of them in the spring.
One Hilton Head High junior said too much emphasis is put on test scores to represent who they are as a student and a person. Some students spend almost every spare moment they have studying for those tests. Often, it's even more than that -- cutting in to sleep, other activities or other classes, Shannon Short said.
Leading up to a test, Short and other students walk out of classes not remembering what the last hour of the lecture was about. They cannot focus because of the immense pressure to get good grades, get good scores and get into a good school, Short said.
"All the stress that comes with the testing makes these tests and everything that comes with it a much bigger hurdle than they need to be," said Short as she wrung her hands, seemingly stressed just talking about testing.
As the test looms, some students are paralyzed by the pressure. Some count down the days until the tests arrive; others are reminded every day in the schools.
On the door of one Hilton Head Island Middle School classroom, students saw how many days were left before the PASS Writing test on March 18 and 19 every time they entered the classroom. Ten days, nine, eight, seven, six ... as the number of days declines the level of stress and anxiety grows.
"I can remember the first day of one of my classes, and the teacher said, 'OK, we have 100 days until the test.' And that is all I or anyone could think about until we took that test," Hilton Head High senior Addie Warren said. "There was too much focus on memorizing for the test and not really on learning or taking away the material."
What's more, too much standardized testing robs students of instruction time -- in ways both obvious and not so obvious, some educators say.
WHERE DID THE TIME GO?
Students entering Beaufort County public schools today can expect to lose the equivalent of 22 to 34 or even more days to No. 2 pencils and bubble sheets over the course of their academic careers. But the extent of lost instruction time is actually greater than that.
For example, Beaufort High School requires all sophomores to spend 35 minutes each day for three weeks in an "HSAP academy," designed to equip them with skills and strategies to pass the High School Assessment Program. The test is commonly referred to as South Carolina's exit exam because students must pass it to earn a high school diploma. HSAP testing for Beaufort County public high schools starts Tuesday.
Most advanced students find the HSAP test to be a breeze, one Beaufort High teacher says, yet even honors and Advanced Placement students must participate in the test preparation.
And such preparation is not uncommon. The district administers more than 15 different standardized tests, many with different formats. Teachers spend multiple days before each test reviewing with students and administering practice tests, according to Hilton Head Middle English teacher Kathleen Clark.
Added superintendent Moss: "If you looked at how much time we use to get ready for the state and federal tests, administer the test, separate the results, meet on the results, re-administer the test -- when you start adding up all that time and what it takes away from instructional time -- that is closing that window for students to have the opportunity to master the content."
And instruction time is not swiped only from students who will take the test, particularly in high schools.
Tests are typically administered to students by grade level, but classes can include students from several grades. As a result, testing and test preparation sometimes force teachers or administrators into a difficult decision: Fill class time with busy work for those not taking tests, or forge ahead with the lesson and risk the test-takers missing material and falling behind.
"Testing, all this testing, is taking away from instructional time, so that's a big problem," Hilton Head High's Gray said. "Let's put that emphasis back in the classroom."
Seems like a simle enough idea. But how -- if everyone agrees that the focus should be in the classroom -- did we arrive at this assessment overload where the focus is elsewhere?
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.