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Hall County officials questions learning in the age of assessment
Educators worry focus on testing robs students of creative learning
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Required tests
Kindergarten: Georgia Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills
Grades K-3: District-administered Student Learning Objectives
Grades 3-8: End of grade Georgia Milestones in language arts, mathematics, science and social studies
High School: End of course Georgia Milestones in ninth-grade literature, American literature, coordinate algebra, analytic geometry, U.S. history, economics, physical science and biology; Georgia High School Writing Test
Varying grade levels: District or school-administered mid-terms and final exams, National Assessment of Educational Progress
For English language learners: Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State
Students with cognitive disabilities: Georgia Alternate Assessment

For Will Schofield, the question about testing is not whether it has value, but when enough is enough.

Schofield, the superintendent of Hall County Schools, said tests are helpful for planning instruction and identifying problems, but the emphasis that’s placed on them often goes too far.

“We’ve told students over and over again that all that matters is bubbling in the right answers on standardized tests,” Schofield said. “As we narrow the curriculum and we push everybody to get the right answer, we start to almost educate out the creativity.”

In Georgia, the typical fifth-grader spends five days taking state tests at the end of the year, according to Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville schools.

The state tests are the longest and have the highest stakes, but they only make up a part of the district testing schedule.

“Every year, we have a testing calendar that goes into two pages, single-spaced,” Schofield said.

On top of the state tests, some students take the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes referred to as the nation’s report card, which takes about three days according to Wayne Colston, the testing and assessment coordinator for Hall schools.

High school students can spend as little as two days taking state tests, but that depends on which courses they are taking. The Georgia Milestones end-of-course tests, the standardized state tests for high school, are administered for specific courses. Younger students take the Georgia Milestones end-of-grade tests.

In addition to the state tests and NAEP, students spend time taking district tests, including the Student Learning Objectives given to kindergarten through third-graders
 at the beginning of the school year. These tests are meant to determine where students are academically as they begin a new school year. SLOs are created and administered by local districts, but mandated by the state, as are district-level midterm exams.

“These can be multiple days out of a kindergarten, first-grade student’s time,” Schofield said. “I think there really is a detrimental potential the younger a child is.”

Schofield said he feels time used to administer SLOs could be better spent with meaningful interaction between teachers and students, and that the existing skills a child brings into the classroom can be determined without a formal test.

“What you ought to be assessing at the kindergarten level is literacy skills, and you can do that in very quick and appropriate ways,” he said. “I’m a long way from being convinced that’s a wise way to spend our instructional time.”

“It takes quite a while to get all of the students assessed,” said Leslie Frierson, testing coordinator for Gainesville’s Centennial Arts Academy. “It’s hours of instructional time that are spent on assessment.”

But both Schofield and Frierson said standardized tests have value. They can help educators find the best methods of teaching, reveal areas where students need the most help and provide an accountability measure for educators at all levels.

“I think they certainly have a place in measuring the progress of schools,” Schofield said. “When used properly, standardized tests can have a very positive effect on instruction.”

What’s lacking, he said, is the right balance between testing and learning. Tests become problematic only when they are given so much weight that they hinder creativity and critical thinking more than they aid instruction, he said.

“Testing ought to be an opportunity for a teacher to find out what a child knows and doesn’t know so they know what to teach,” he said. “What we really ought to be concerned with is growth.”

This year, the Georgia Department of Education began using the student growth model, a data set that measures students’ test scores against previous scores and the scores of their peers. The model doesn’t change the tests themselves or the scores students get, but it gives educators another way of looking at learning.

Instead of just looking at whether a student scored above or below the average, educators and families can see how much a student, school or district has improved compared to others across the state.

The benefits of standardized testing, Bell said, are all about how you look at and use the data it creates.

“We know a lot more about how to use data to drive instruction than we used to,” Bell said. “The confusion comes when the focus is on the compliance side of testing and not the follow-up.”

In other words, standardized tests are not there simply to determine whether schools are teaching everything they’re supposed to. They can and should be used to help schools improve.

“Really, the primary purpose behind everything is to design effective instruction,” she said.

Colston also said it’s important to put the data from standardized tests to good use.

“We can determine by looking at the test results what needs to be focused on,” he said. “If there’s a gap in math, say fractions, if you’ve got a class or a whole grade level that does not do well in that area, it tells the schools that we need to focus more on that.”

The state has taken some steps to try to improve the balance between testing and meaningful learning. With the new Georgia Milestones test, which replaces the old Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests and End of Course Tests, students will answer both open-ended and multiple-choice questions rather than multiple-choice alone.

Schofield said he hopes these questions will encourage students and educators alike to focus on building critical-thinking skills rather than learning how to filling in the right bubble on a test sheet.

Colston said the state is also expected to drop the daylong Georgia High School Writing Test, assessing those skills using the Milestones tests instead, and he said writing tests for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders has been eliminated already.

The Milestones tests also have fewer separate subject-areas than the CRCT, combining the reading and English/language arts tests into one.

“There’s fewer standardized tests that will be given this year versus previous years,” Colston said.

“There is a real effort at the state level to reduce the number of tests,” Bell said.

Educators are hoping the changes to the tests will to some extent make them more useful and less burdensome — but that doesn’t mean they don’t create challenges for educators and students alike.

For students, test anxiety can be a problem, Colston said. Although the requirements have been waived for one year for the transition to the new Milestones tests, the assessments normally count as a large percentage of the grade for a high school course, and they are used to determine whether elementary and middle school students move on to the next grade level.

The tests have high stakes for teachers as well. Throughout Georgia, scores and growth data are used to evaluate teacher performance. This has an effect on both teacher morale and their ability to craft instruction around what keeps students most engaged.

“It can be overwhelming,” Frierson said. “It certainly can in some ways make you feel a little handcuffed. But I have to applaud our teachers. They have found ways to differentiate instruction (so that kids stay interested).”

At Centennial, Frierson said some students are given a “genius hour” where they can work on projects they are enthusiastic about. Bell said teachers across the district look for ways to incorporate tested curriculum into activities that encourage critical thinking and make students really want to learn.

The yearly deluge of tests and tests preparation may put a strain on teachers, students and administration, but Bell said that doesn’t mean tests necessarily put schools at a disadvantage. For all the challenges and pitfalls of standardized testing, she said, schools can use them to provide a better education.

“My hope is that (students) get better instruction and they get more personalized instruction,” she said.