Educator group asks York schools to reduce testing mandate

jbecknell@enquirerherald.comFebruary 27, 2014 

— A state educators’ association has asked York school leaders to revamp their approach to some Common Core standards, arguing it has hurt teaching and learning in York elementary schools.

“Children are crying because they do not want to come to school,” said Melody Bolinger, upstate director for the South Carolina Education Association, a professional association for public school educators and staff. “Teachers and student teachers are saying they do not want to work in the York 1 school district.”

Bolinger spoke to the York school board last week, asking board members to consider “teacher-guided changes” in the way student progress is being measured and reported.

Bolinger also presented the results of a school climate survey by the SCEA that she said was prompted by “a high number” of complaints the organization received from York teachers, parents and administrators in elementary schools.

She said elementary school educators have asked that the district revert to the assessment and report card system it used last year “and allow them to help create one that is satisfactory for parents, students and the district.”

Bolinger emphasized that the complaints are not with the Common Core standards , but with the way the York school district has implemented them.

The district last fall moved to a standards-based grading system for math and English language arts for pre-kindergarten to fourth grade. The change is linked to the move toward Common Core standards, a project that attempts to standardize curriculum nationally.

Students in fifth grade and older are not included in the switch to standards-based grading, and still receive traditional report cards.

Bolinger said each Common Core standard has a set of indicators that build toward mastery of each academic standard.

She said teachers complained they were initially required to do five types of student tests or “assessments” for each indicator of each standard, which she said could ultimately add up to several thousand individual grades in a nine-week period.

After teachers and administrators complained to the SCEA, she said, that requirement was lowered to three assessments per indicator, “which does not even cut the assessments by half.”

Bolinger, who covers 23 school districts, said she has not heard similar complaints from other districts. “Other districts are not requiring a magic number of assessments,” she said. Instead, she said, “they allow teachers to use their judgment on that.”

As a result of the assessments, Bolinger told the board, a December online school climate survey found that 80 percent of York educators “said they were thinking about leaving the profession, and the other 20 percent were seeking employment in other school districts or planning on retiring.”

Board member Shirley Harris asked Bolinger how many employees responded to the school climate survey, a figure that Bolinger declined to provide.

Bolinger told Harris there was “a high response rate,” but said that she guaranteed the respondents she would not share details on how many employees responded.

“The teachers are really, really afraid of retaliation,” Boliner said after the meeting.

Harris told Bolinger that teachers were involved in making the change. “We had teachers who came this summer and worked on this very thing we’re talking about,” Harris said.

Bolinger said after the meeting that teachers had input into the pacing guide, which covers what content will be taught when. She said they did not have input into the assessment system.

Bolinger said SCEA representatives had meetings with Superintendent Vernon Prosser and his staff on two occasions in recent months about the concerns.

Prosser said the standards-based report card shows specific details on each child’s progress in a variety of areas. “It’s an attempt to get a real mark where a child is,” he said.

He said two elementary school principals who attended a workshop came to him with the idea for the report cards. He said they initially thought five assessments would be a good idea and that principals later recommended reducing that to three assessments per indicator.

Prosser said elementary school principals are working with teachers on the new system. “Without knowing who said what, it’s kind of hard to go to the source and understand what the person needs help with,” he said.

Prosser said the system will be re-evaluated at the end of the school year and that adjustments will be made as recommended by the staff.

“We will have to assess how well it is working,” he said. “It’s probably going to be about a three-year process. This is the first year that teachers have taught these standards, and I’ve heard mixed emotions.”

Prosser acknowledged that the change has been difficult and that it has required teachers to dramatically change the way they teach.

“Most teachers were not taught to teach this way,” he said. “New is hard. It’s a lot of change.”

However, he also said that each assessment does not have to be a test, and can instead be simple visual observations by the teacher that the students have mastered the indicator. He also said that some assessments can cover more than one indicator.

“It’s kind of a working smart philosophy,” he said. “Some of those assessments do not have to be done in isolation, and an assessment does not have to be a pen-and-paper test.”

He added: “I think where teachers sometimes have a problem with that is, they feel like they’ve gotta have a folder full of paper, and where I want the teachers to be is, if they say the child has mastered it, they’ve mastered it.”

Staci Rampey, a York parent who attended one of the meetings with the SCEA and Prosser, said the report card system is confusing to parents.

She said her child’s report card was six pages long.

“I don’t really feel like as a parent that I got a good explanation as to how to interpret the report card, what it means,” she said.

She added: “What I don’t understand as a parent is why we need a different report card at the elementary school, because once they move on, they’re back to an ABCDF report card.”

Prosser said it’s important to identify gaps or weaknesses in skills an at early age, so children can get needed help “and they can be more successful.”

Bolinger said other confusions about the new system among teachers include how to assign new letter grades, which include E, consistently exceed standards; P, consistently proficient; NY, not yet consistently demonstrating the standard; and U, has not demonstrated the standard.

She also said the Common Core system created a code for each standard and York created its own code, which requires teachers to master two coding systems.

Bolinger also said she believes the assessments are causing unnecessary stress among students.

“I’ve talked to school nurses who are seeing an increase in the children coming to their offices for things like tummy aches, stress, because of the stress of the assessments,” she said.

She said parents have also voiced complaints.

“Parents say kids are crying, they don’t want to come to school,” Bolinger said. “They want to leave school early, so the parents are also having this disconnect. They feel like everything is a test.”

Teachers were allowed to give anonymous comments for the SCEA climate survey. Some of the responses included:

• “It’s promoting student stress, not success...Other districts are addressing Common Core without this ridiculous report card.”

• “Many students make negative comments about the number of tests and quizzes they have to complete. When a student misses a day, he/she comes back to a large stack of make-up work that can take days to complete.”

• “The teachers needed so much more practical grade-level inservice long before implementing Common Core ... Because the teachers needed a year just to learn their grade-level standards and create good lessons, the focus should not have been put on all the assessments.”

• “If a student shows they have the standard mastered the first or second time they are assessed, we should be moving them further along, not holding them back for additional assessments.”

• “Parents are upset because no one called them or considered their opinions...They do not understand these decisions, and are upset that their kids are being tested more than taught.”

• “The kids are being burned out. In the past, students have been eager to show what they know, but now they say, ‘Another test?’”

Jennifer Becknell •  803-329-4077

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