Teachers speak out at BOE against overtesting

Public school teachers took their concerns about overtesting of students and a flawed teacher evaluation system to the Board of Education Sept. 6 during hours of testimony and discussions with board members, some of whom shared teachers’ opinions regarding too many standardized tests.

Radford High English Teacher Andy Jones opened with a plea to the BOE’s Student Achievement Committee to urge the DOE to eliminate its commitment to standardized testing as we now know it and to the Educator Effectiveness System. Jones told BOE members that the DOE’s Strategic Plan falls far short, and is “heavily marred by the existence of two ‘silver bullets’ left over from the Race to the Top years – the new-generation standardized tests and the Educator Effectiveness System.”

Jones provided a table comparing American with Finnish educational reform, contrasting Finland’s system, which was designed by teachers and focuses on collaboration and equity to promote excellence, instead of top-down standardization often designed by non-teachers.

Vickie Parker Kam, the curriculum coordinator at Ilima Intermediate in Ewa Beach, testified for the first time before the BOE. Kam just became the school’s testing coordinator this school year and she shared testing schedules with BOE members, providing evidence of significant over-testing. Testing “has been insidiously inserted into our schools,” Kam told BOE members. Kam said some Ilima students take tests for one-class periods on up to 92 days of the school year, an amount she called “overwhelming.”

“You only have school for 180 days. If half of your time, someone is looking over your shoulder or forcing you to do something high stakes that’s desperately impacting your future, that’s not what we want for our kids. Did you mean for that to happen? I don’t think we did,” Kam said.

Lisa Morrison, a classroom teacher and student activities coordinator at Maui Waena Intermediate School, asked board members to “investigate the damaging effects on Hawaii school children by conducting a testing audit as called for in the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

“The purpose of the audit would be to identify how much testing is actually happening at the school level,” Morrison said. “This has not been measured, and the results of such an audit would reveal the true extent of overtesting that students endure.”

Morrison called the librarian’s situation at Maui Waena Intermediate “most depressing.” That’s because there is little time available for her to work with classes and students on research and project-based learning, since the library is used for testing on a regular basis. “The librarian becomes a test proctor for much of the year, and the library must be closed to students most of the time,” Morrison told BOE members.

After hearing a wide range of concerns about over testing from teachers statewide at the Sept. 6 committee meeting, Kauai BOE Member Margaret Cox, a retired teacher and principal, pledged to put a separate testing item on a future BOE agenda to discuss the issue in further depth.

The DOE’s testing requirements for the current school year include the Smarter Balanced Assessment tests that many teachers say take up far too much time without benefiting students. Those SBA tests in English and math for grades 3 to 8 and 11 took each student an average of seven hours in 2015, the DOE said. The test “gauges student progress toward college/career readiness based on Hawaii Common Core,” the DOE said in its power point presentation.

But Kam, the testing coordinator at Ilima Intermediate, told BOE members that less than five percent of U.S. colleges and universities accept SBA math and English scores.

BOE Vice Chair Brian De Lima, a Hilo attorney, said, “It’s more than seven hours (The amount of time taking SBA tests) in terms of the prep and the culture of attention and focus in order to prepare for the test. That’s wrong.”

“Somehow we have to break this cycle of obsession. And that’s where students get hurt,” De Lima added.

Mireille Ellsworth, an English teacher at Waiakea High in Hilo, told board members about how student learning objectives, known as SLOs, are an invalid and unreliable measurement of teacher impact on students.

“Teachers need to have flexibility, which is now encouraged in the new federal law (ESSA) for a very good reason,” Ellsworth said. “Teachers must be allowed to maximize student engagement by getting to know their students, highlighting their strengths, and then using students’ interests to guide them to work on their weaknesses. SLOs are only perpetuating a punishing model of “not reaching goals” instead of a positive, proactive approach. Let’s stop this data-driving model which sets our teachers up for failure.”

Mililani High social studies teacher Amy Perruso, HSTA’s secretary-treasurer, spoke for the whole group when she expressed frustration with the slow rate of change at the DOE, as well as with lingering commitments to a teacher evaluation system that is founded on the myth of the “bad teacher.”

Perruso, a national board-certified teacher, said, “There is no credible evidence to support the idea that the deficiency of teachers is the key causal factor undermining the quality of public education.”

Math Teacher Michal Nowicki described the freedom he enjoys as a charter school teacher at the UH Lab school who does not have to worry about proving himself each year through a burdensome evaluation system.

“Perhaps, because we haven’t instituted EES at our school, many of our teachers can be seen spending most of their time with their students, planning activities, creating electives and participating in extra-curricular activities,” Nowicki said.

HSTA Teacher Lobbyist Mitzie Higa, speaking for HSTA at the BOE meeting, addressed contradictions in a DOE PowerPoint presentation on its Strategic Plan that first mentioned that “Teachers should design innovative learning experiences, fostering creativity for students…” On the same slide, the DOE said, “Core instructional materials in English Language Arts and Mathematics selected to provide consistency in transition to new standards to serve as a primary resource…”

Higa explained that Springboard and Go Math programs for secondary schools, and Wonders and Stepping Stones for elementary schools were mandated curriculum for all public schools in Hawaii, and that an individual teacher could not just write a waiver. Complex area superintendents have to approve any waivers, as well as principals, and a waiver application must be completed by a school, she told BOE members. All schools were given a mandate to use this curriculum, regardless of how well they had been doing prior to Race To The Top.

Higa is the curriculum coordinator and English language learner (ELL) coordinator at Ewa Makai Middle School.

Higa, a national board-certified teacher, also said mandating of curriculum for English and math had squashed the creativity of teachers.

“It’s limiting our teachers. It’s limiting our students,” Higa told board members.

She added that walkthroughs are conducted at schools and teachers have been criticized if they were not “using the textbook with students enough.”  Textbook representatives often accompany school and complex area administrators on these walkthroughs, said Higa, who’s been teaching in Hawaii public schools for 17 years.

“How can having biased pressure from a textbook representative who advises teachers to have their students ‘use their textbook more’ encourage innovation in our classrooms?” Higa said. “We need to encourage creativity, not breed compliance and conformity. Our students deserve innovative approaches to instruction, not canned curriculum with cookie-cutter outputs.”