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In my article on teacher complaints about the amount of standardized testing in San Diego Unified today, I touched on the point that some of the tests are not actually required by the school district, yet teachers have repeatedly called them “mandatory.”

This is a big misunderstanding in the district that has caused an actual uptick in testing (even though the mandatory tests have not increased dramatically) and no small degree of rage and frustration from teachers. A reader asked for more explanation: What is getting lost in translation?

Picture a huge bureaucracy with dozens upon dozens of schools. Then replace most of its leaders who understand the system and its history. Then threaten that system with deep budget cuts, consuming the attention and energy of its staffers. That’s basically what has happened to San Diego Unified over the last year. Under a new superintendent, many leaders have left and been replaced with newcomers, many with new titles and different responsibilities than their predecessors. At the same time, budget cuts overshadowed much of the everyday business of a huge school district.

So when the curriculum department designed a bunch of guides — known officially as “units” — that map out what teachers teach and when and paired them with tests, a lot of schools missed the message that these were optional tests and optional units. The new units were designed largely under then-Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jen Cheatham, who once worked as an intern with former Superintendent Carl Cohn. Less than a year after Cohn left, Cheatham did too.

Literacy curriculum leader Lori Hurwitz said she was stunned when teachers phoned or e-mailed her to complain that they were being forced to give the unit tests. That wasn’t the idea, she said. Teachers are “expected” to use the tests if their children are struggling, but Hurwitz said classes where all children are scoring well probably don’t need them.

“Some teachers are saying they are being required to give the assessments,” Hurwitz said. “All I can say is that on the district level that is not the case.”

And there is one more layer to this issue: Testing has a new meaning under Superintendent Terry Grier, who has stressed accountability for schools that falter in testing. Schools are supposed to make minimum improvements to reach goals that are lower than those set by No Child Left Behind. Principals are anxious that if they fall short, they could be replaced or given less freedom to run their schools.

Teachers, in turn, are nervous about the introduction of “value-added” data that is meant to figure out how effective each teacher is in raising test scores. Such data is highly controversial among teachers, and has been used to calculate bonuses for merit pay in other school systems. It is unclear how such analysis might be used in San Diego Unified; leaders have said it will not be used to evaluate teachers.

But feeling pressure from what seems like a bunch of new tests, some teachers have tagged the problem to Grier — even though the tests were developed before he arrived under a staffer who was hired by Cohn.

Add it all up: Principals are under pressure to raise scores. They know that new, district-created tests are available that could help predict whether a child will succeed or fail on later tests. And their supervisors keep changing or are preoccupied with budget cuts. It seems quite possible — even likely — that either misunderstanding or anxiety would cause principals to tell teachers that the unit tests were a must. Teachers meanwhile are fearful that those tests could be used against them.

That is certainly what teachers and parents have heard. I got more than a dozen e-mails and calls about this issue after posing the question on our blog earlier this week. One grandmother just e-mailed me this morning:

My granddaughter has been a top student but is now struggling in her 5th grade class because the teacher has to deal with the extra testing and with students with learning disabilities and some with serious emotional disorders.  She has no assistant other than parent volunteers with varying degrees of ability to help her.  The teacher apologized to my granddaughter but said she just doesn’t always have time to help her.

Thankfully, Hurwitz said the confusion should be cleared up soon.

“The good news is, it’s not going to happen this way again,” she said.

EMILY ALPERT

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