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Friday, Nov. 14, 2008 | Teacher Michele Janette felt like the tests would never end. Her 3rd graders at Benchley-Weinberger Elementary had taken seven tests by early November, one after the next, none of which counted towards their grades. They were supposed to help Janette tailor her teaching, but Janette felt they were crippling her.
To plead her case to San Diego Unified leaders, she lugged a foot-long bin of papers and two binders to a school board meeting. All the tests for the entire year used to fit into those two binders, she said, but this year they overflowed from the binders into the bin in just seven weeks.
“They are hitting us so quickly — I cannot ethically give these tests to my students unless I prepare them to take them and I go over them afterwards,” Janette told the board.
San Diego Unified has long required its own set of standardized tests for students from kindergarten to high school in addition to the California tests required by No Child Left Behind. They are meant to help teachers who complain that the California test scores are useless, returned long after the children have moved on to the next grade. Between the tests required by California and those added by San Diego Unified, some students take 16 standardized tests in a single year, in addition to exams created by their teachers. There are tests to gauge how well a child can read; tests to measure writing skills; tests to check whether students understood a lesson after it ends.
Thanks to a new computerized system, the San Diego Unified tests can be graded more quickly, giving prompter and clearer feedback to teachers and principals. Unlike ordinary exams given by teachers, such tests do not factor into grades. Instead, they are meant to help detect specific weaknesses or strengths for each child over time, helping teachers to adjust their teaching. Advocates of testing say it is the sole objective measure of how children are performing and keeps all schools bound to the same standards, enriching the analysis of what works and what doesn’t in each classroom.
“One data point tells you almost nothing. Two data points ain’t much better,” said Tyler Cramer, acting chief executive officer of the Business Roundtable for Education Foundation. “Give me multiple data points and you can tell what’s happening.”
Yet a growing chorus of teachers says the addition of more and more tests is backfiring, revealing a downside of the love affair with data in San Diego Unified. While the school district has not officially mandated more tests than in years past — in many cases, it has swapped new tests for old ones — many teachers said the new tests are cumbersome. Confusion abounds over whether they are also supposed to give another batch of tests created by the curriculum department, whose leaders said the tests have been misunderstood by principals as a required task.
“Teachers are not required to do it,” said Lori Hurwitz, literacy curriculum leader, who has fielded angry phone calls and dozens of frustrated e-mails from teachers who were told otherwise. She added, “We have used the word ‘expect.’ And people have interpreted that differently.”
But where the tests are coming from makes little difference to teachers who say the bottom line is too much testing and too little time. They complain that projects and tutoring have gone by the wayside and that they are left with less information, rather than more. Neat tables of data about how English-learning students in a Spanish immersion program fared on an English-language test are “essentially absurd,” said teacher Scott Mullin.
“I am probably about a month behind in getting to know my students’ true academic strengths and weaknesses,” Mullin said. One of his students burst into tears during testing. The frustration has risen to the attention of school district leaders and board members, some of whom say that San Diego Unified needs to reassess its assessments.
“There should be a limit,” said Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris. He added, “It is something we’re going to be looking at.”
San Diego Unified mandates nine types of tests in addition to the No Child Left Behind exams, some of which are given several times a year. They can be broken into three categories: screening tests that measure a student before a class begins, diagnostic tests meant to suss out the specific challenges for each child, and summative tests given after a subject is taught to check if a child grasped the material. Some tests are given one-on-one; others can be administered in a group, bubbling in circles on a scannable sheet. The new tests created by the curriculum department are paired with “units” that teachers are encouraged to use to shape their lessons, designating day by day what should be taught.
The volume of testing varies from grade to grade. Between No Child Left Behind and the San Diego Unified tests, 5th graders take 16 different standardized tests over the course of a year, none of which factor into their grade, in addition to the regular exams given in their classes and optional tests that teachers may use to diagnose struggling students. Kindergarteners take only four tests, one of which is just for English learners. Color-coded calendars map out when students take the different state and district tests, a rainbow in the beginning and end of the year.
“We love data. But we don’t want to push teachers so far that they start to resent collecting data,” said Bruce McGirr, presidents of the Administrators Association. “… It kind of blows your mind to look at the testing calendar.”
While all California public schools must give the exams that feed No Child Left Behind, not all schools add as many exams as does San Diego Unified. A nearby charter school, Albert Einstein Academy, is similar to San Diego Unified in that it gives benchmark exams that check students’ progress several times a year in addition to No Child Left Behind exams, but still gives fewer tests than the school district. Its principal, David Sciarretta, estimates that students spend nine hours on such tests each year. Though he values the information reaped from such tests, Sciarretta said anything more would compromise his teachers and bore students.
“There is nothing engaging about that,” he said.
Many teachers were reluctant to speak publicly about their concerns, but some parents and even students have begun to notice and protest the increase in testing and its impact on classes. Parent Theresa Quiroz called the curriculum units that outline when each subject should be taught, day by day, “ridiculous” and aggravating to teachers who feel bound by the tests that follow each unit.
“Can you imagine what it must be like to go to school and every day have it crammed down your throat so you can regurgitate it on Friday, and then move on like it never happened?” she said.
Ninth graders at Lincoln High School, where students learn about social justice movements, have grown resistant to taking standardized tests. Across town at Clairemont High School, students complain that there is no point in taking exams that have no impact on their grades and no value on a college application, said head counselor Mary Jo McCarey. The brightest students often skip standardized tests to cram for Advanced Placement tests that earn them college credit, she said, and the struggling students care little about a test that won’t help them graduate.
Proponents of testing say that its virtues outweigh such complaints. While no calculation has been done for the San Diego Unified tests, exams for No Child Left Behind consume less than 1 percent of instructional time, said Jim Lanich, president of the nonprofit California Business for Education Excellence. He added that if test results are used to reshape instruction, reteaching the missed ideas and moving beyond the understood ones, they are part of teaching — not a diversion from it. Testing can also check whether schools are teaching to the same standards and rigor, so that a math class in one area of the school district is not easier than another the other side of town.
“I look at it very simply: What do the kids need to know, when do they need to know it, how do you know if they learned it, and what do you do if they didn’t?” said Lanich, a former classroom teacher. “I don’t know how I would adjust my instruction if I didn’t know where my kids are.”
And Karen Bachofer, executive director of standards, assessment and accountability, said in some cases schools are actually short on tests. Diagnostic tests that identify student weaknesses are relatively scant, she said, and should be the most important tests of all.
“We really don’t have anything out there across all schools that diagnoses things like phonological awareness. Can they detect rhymes? Can they count syllables? Can they name the sounds of the letters?” Bachofer asked.
Foes of testing argue that teachers can understand their students’ skills without resorting to tests, if they are given the time to observe them. They contend that the same tests meant to give teachers more information about students are actually depriving them of the time to get acquainted with the children.
“You listen to the kid. You observe the kid. You watch where they’re at,” said David Strom, an education professor at San Diego State University. “Not whether they know this little fact or that little fact.”
Once Michele Janette had graded and scanned the seven tests that consumed her first weeks at school, she was intrigued by the results. She wanted to plunge into teaching to bring the slower students up to snuff, to engage the kids who were ahead of the pack. Instead she started gearing up for a standardized science test planned for next week.
“I have so much information about the kids. I don’t want to give any more assessments,” Janette said. “I need time to use these results to plan my teaching. And to teach.”