By Melody Simmons
Standardized testing is chipping away at “so many layers” of a public school classroom these days, a panel of educators said during a town hall meeting — taking away from teacher autonomy to curriculum and even technology hubs placed in schools to help students learn and connect to a high-tech world.
Wednesday’s panel discussion was sponsored by the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing over 70,000 educators, and moderated by radio host Marc Steiner. The 90-minute forum drew about 100 participants that included two state delegates, teachers, administrators and parents to an auditorium at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore.
The discussion will be broadcast Friday morning at 10 a.m. on The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA-FM.
Changes in teaching
During a panel discussion, three educators spoke frankly about how standardized testing in Maryland — the PARCC test of Common Core standards — has contributed to radical changes in their approach to teaching. Much of their comments are part of a growing chorus of criticism and national debate over standardized testing.
PARCC — which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers– was given for the first time to Maryland’s elementary and high school students during the 2014-15 academic year.
It measured reading and mathematics and replaced existing standardized tests, the Maryland School Assessments for grades 3 through 8, and the High School Assessment tests for Algebra I and English 10.
“I think children are being left behind — kids are not being taught the basics,” said Cheryl Colbert, a teacher at Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore.
Erika Strauss Chavarria, a Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia added: “It’s taken the enjoyment and fun out of learning . It’s destroyed that. As educators, it’s taken the fun out of teaching. We should be deciding how to assess our students.”
The forum was presented as the MSEA launched $500,000 advertising campaign with public awareness events like the town hall to highlight what it has deemed the negative impacts testing has had on Maryland students. The campaign is called “Less Testing, More Learning.”
A second town hall is scheduled for Nov. 4 in Montgomery County.
During a question and answer period during the town hall meeting, a common theme discussed by parents and educators was how students and teachers experienced lost time in the classrooms during test preparation. One speaker even lamented that the number of field trips have scaled back because there is not enough time to schedule them.
“We need to get away from the idea that the only way we’ll know how we’re doing is by giving a test,” said Maryland state Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat who represents District 12 and for decades was a math teacher in Howard County.
Ebersole was appointed to a state commission that has been charged with studying over-testing of students in Maryland schools, as was Del. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County. Hettleman said the state commission is still being formed and is not likely to meet for the first time until 2016.
Ebersole told the group,“We are working in the State House,” to scale back the emphasis on standardized testing as a means to grade and assess success for students, teachers, schools and school districts.
Classroom autonomy whittled away
Many speakers and educators admitted that testing is important and necessary. But today’s emphasis on Common Core standards, developed as a result of the federal No Child Left Behind law, has whittled away at curriculum and classroom autonomy.
Another complaint discussed at the town hall meeting was technology. As a majority of the PARCC tests are taken on computers, educators told of how entire computer labs in schools — designed to help students learn, write papers, print papers, use email and research academic pursuits — are taken over during testing time.
“When I heard it was computer based, I asked what about those students who don’t have technology at home?” asked Matthew Vaughn-Smith, a reading specialist at Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Jessup, a member of the town hall panel.
One result of that, Vaughn-Smith said, was some students struggling to use a keyboard and a mouse during test taking.
Another issue was crashing of computers during testing, which caused stress for students, particularly those who have learning struggles said Colbert from Digital Harbor High School.
“Some students, they just shut down,” she said.
Parents were equally concerned. During a Q&A session, many spoke of the impact of testing on their children’s academic path. Morna McDermott, who has two children in Baltimore County schools, has “opted out” of testing for her 3rd and 5th graders.
“My children have never taken the MSAs (Maryland School Assessment test) or PARCC and somehow they have not spontaneously combusted,” she said. “You can refuse the test. It’s a lousy measure of who they are.”
Joi Kerr Walker, who said she just left a position as a Baltimore City Schools teacher in part because of the testing issue, told the town hall of how testing prep begins in Pre-Kindergarten.
“We are stressing these babies out,” she said. “We are going to make them hate coming to school.”
Towson University literacy teacher Bess Altwerger, who is also a member of the Howard County School Board, said she came to the town hall to express her personal viewpoint on standardized testing and student test preparedness. She called it a huge waste of money.
“If we took the hundreds of millions of dollars spent now on testing and created schools with small classrooms and more resources…we could address issues” of poverty and academic inequities, she said. “We are wasting money on these tests and it’s pointless.”