How to fix the testing problem

Hilton Head Island Middle School student Emma Patrick works during a practice PASS test in the class of English teacher Kathleen Clark on March 6, 2014. All grades take the English, Writing and Math sections while select grades take the science or the social studies. This is the state-developed test to measure if students are meeting the state's standards.
Hilton Head Island Middle School student Emma Patrick works during a practice PASS test in the class of English teacher Kathleen Clark on March 6, 2014. All grades take the English, Writing and Math sections while select grades take the science or the social studies. This is the state-developed test to measure if students are meeting the state's standards. Staff photo
Almost everyone seems to agree that public-school children spend too much time taking standardized tests -- the equivalent of 22 full school days, at a minimum, by the time they graduate from the Beaufort County School District.

And almost everyone seems to agree that students take too many standardized tests -- more than 60 in a typical Beaufort County student's academic career.

Even state Department of Education Superintendent Mick Zais -- who said he does not share the opinion expressed by many students, parents, teachers and administrators that there is too much standardized testing -- believes some of the tests are futile or redundant.

So with near consensus on the matter, why isn't more being done to curb the amount of instruction time lost to test-taking or to ratchet back the pressure many feel from its high-stakes results? Why isn't more being done to reverse the assessment overload?

"I wish I knew what to do to make the amount of testing more balanced and less stressful," Hilton Head Island Middle School English teacher Kathleen Clark said. "But I don't have any clue, which is why I am a teacher and not one of the big guns."

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Solutions, and what we can do to change things

Changing what we do as teachers and how students learn. Measuring progress and finding balance. Solution, and what we can do to change it. "I don't know if there is a big answer to the testing question but I certainly know we've swung along ways to doing a little too much testing."

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Not only is there little being done to cut back on the number of tests, the big guns -- members of the state Department of Education and the General Assembly -- are looking at a new set of tests.

The state must implement an assessment aligned with the controversial Common Core standards for next school year. To do so, South Carolina has adopted a test program from the Smarter Balanced Consortium, which has received the test blessing of the U.S. Department of Education.

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The number of standardized tests given to students will not rise, because the new Common Core-aligned test will replace the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, or PASS. Nonetheless, the decision helps explain in part why it is so difficult to reduce the number of tests school children take: Every new initiative, program or curriculum seems to bring an exam designed to measure its effectiveness.

And when a new test is added, seldom do education officials consider whether an exam already being administered could serve the same purpose, according to Dereck Rhoads, the Beaufort County School District's chief instructional services officer.

"We really need to look at what we are testing students for," Rhoads said, "so we might have less testing but more comprehensive testing."

Zais, the state superintendent, cites as an example the High School Assessment Program, a test students must pass to graduate. Several other tests students take could be used to determine their college or career readiness, he said.

"If any test duplicates what's already being done, then we should just do away with those other tests," Zais said.

Rhoads agrees.

"That would be one less test a teacher has to learn to administer, one less test for staff to learn to interpret, one less testing window for students and one less test students have to experience," Rhoads said.

But each test is tied to a state or federal accountability requirement, so tests usually get added, not scrapped.

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If educators had to pick which tests to keep, most would pick the Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP test. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade take the test several times throughout the year. It measures their progress and helps teachers provide better instruction, its proponents say.

The politics of test taking - and making

Hilton Head Island Middle School English teacher Kathleen Clark talks about the power of lawmakers to affect testing and therefore students’ performance.

That's the good part of standardized testing, says Clark, the Hilton Head Middle School teacher.

Ask them what standardized tests to eliminate, and the consensus disappears, however. The statement "I don't know the solution," or "I don't have an easy answer" echoed among teachers from all grade levels.

Superintendent Jeff Moss said school districts should be able to experiment with the way they test students and evaluate their learning.

"If the state is concerned about losing the validity of testing, I think it would be good if they would allow a few districts to pilot something completely different," Moss said. "Either way, it's giving districts the opportunity to prove we either have too much testing or maybe it's actually good, and those of us who thought there was too much were wrong."

But districts can't do that.

Take Dorchester District 2, for example. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education rejected the district's request -- which had the state's blessing -- to use the suite of ACT tests instead of South Carolina's assessment program and exit exam.

State education leaders had planned to watch Dorchester 2 to see if the ACT model would serve as a better statewide system. But both of the tests the trial would have replaced are used for the federal accountability system.

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Smarter Balanced Consortium vs. ACT

Many standardized tests are the result of federal mandates -- these mandates might require that states administer a test, even if they do not dictate the exact test. The 2001 No Child Left Behind law, for example, requires students in grades three through eight and high school to be tested in reading and math, although it is left it to the states to determine how best to measure progress toward state-created standards.

Local districts and schools can usually add optional tests, but they have little or no power to eliminate mandated ones, state Department of Education spokesman Dino Teppara said.

That power to actually do something about the overwhelming amount of testing typically resides in buildings with no classrooms.


While No Child Left Behind is largely behind the current assessment overload, the roots of accountability and politics in education go much deeper.

The push for greater accountability was set in motion in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan called for educational reform. The report commissioned by Reagan -- A Nation at Risk -- condemned low standards and inconsistency in students' education. Thus, the movement for raising standards and having an accountable way to measure those standards was born.

While the federal government required accountability, decisions about how to do it -- that is, which tests to give to public-school students -- are typically made by the state legislature, the S.C. State Department of Education, or State Board of Education.

"I'm the expert in education," said Hilton Head Island High School math teacher Christine Gray, a former district teacher of the year with 23 years of classroom experience. "But these other outside people are trying to tell me how to educate and evaluate students."

This year alone, South Carolina alone spent roughly $28 million to administer state and federally mandated tests -- about $40 per student, according to Teppara, the education department spokesman.

"There's a lot of money tied in to tests and different lobbyists will lobby on the behalf of various test groups or meet with legislators and state officials to tout the test," said Rhoads, head of instruction in Beaufort County.

For instance, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $330 million in grants to two groups -- Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC -- to develop systems of Common Core-aligned tests.

These groups and other major testing companies are all developing solid test programs, Rhoads said, but they want to make sure their tests are the ones chosen for use in classrooms.

What are all these tests?

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Further, testing often comes as a condition of participating in special programs or qualifying for grant money, often from federal sources, according to State Education Oversight Committee chairman David Whittemore.

"That's probably why South Carolina has jumped on a lot of these tests to get the different fundings and try different things to get us up to par, but some of these different things haven't worked," he said. "Testing is an extremely important issue, but it's also an extremely complicated one because you are playing with politics and education and everyone has an opinion."

State Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head Island, who serves on the EOC and is chairman of a house subcommittee on K-12 education, said the state needs to find the right mix of objective, standardized tests and subjective, individualized tests.

"Tests are how we have come to finance education and we have tinkered a little bit here and a little bit there," Patrick said. "But you will find that there are a lot of things that are no longer applicable in the state but are still in law, so we have a lot of cleanup we need to do."

But is that cleanup possible?

As South Carolina and other sates formulate their next set of tests, there's an opportunity to examine the number of them and their purpose.

"There are a lot of things up in the air right now and the General Assembly and education leaders have to make a lot of hard decisions," Whittemore said. "But South Carolina is not sitting around anymore, we've got some problems that we need to get a move on with and get fixed."

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