Controversy swirls over value of school tests

State’s testing models ineffective, some claim.

When Ohio’s school students begin state testing again in five weeks, new, shorter tests will calm one problem — last year’s outcry about overtesting.

But controversy continues to swirl around the state’s school report card system, with some questioning the core value of the tests themselves.

“There are more frequent measures that classroom teachers use that are a better gauge of student progress over time than a one-time test,” said Jeremy Miller, Centerville Schools’ curriculum director. “A well-trained teacher’s observations and notes are most valuable in measuring student progress.”

But state school board President Tom Gunlock said the collapse of the shared, multistate testing system makes it impossible for Ohio to compare the performance of its students to those from other states.

“Kids today are competing statewide, nationally and internationally,” Gunlock said. “The idea that we can’t figure out how our kids are going to compete, at least across the United States, is a problem.

“Look, two plus two is four everywhere, and a verb’s a verb. But the way you teach may be different, and for reading and math, we should know how we’re doing at that.”

A different approach

Many educators argue that comparisons with other states are not important, and they question the effectiveness of Ohio’s testing models.

“Our parents don’t care how our kids are doing compared to kids in Cleveland,” West Carrollton Superintendent Rusty Clifford said. “They want to know, do they know what they’re supposed to know, can they do what they’re supposed to do, can they apply what they’ve learned?”

Tom Dunn, superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center, is a frequent critic of the Ohio Department of Education’s testing policies. He said the current report card data “isn’t meaningful or valid.”

And Becky Higgins, president of the teachers union, the Ohio Education Association, said Ohioans “should be leery” about using report card data to make decisions or comparisons.

“We encourage the state’s policymakers to find more ways to limit the role of standardized tests so that our students get more genuine teaching and spend less time preparing for and taking tests,” Higgins said.

A ‘snapshot’

Despite the controversy, Ohio couldn’t ditch annual state testing even if it wanted to. Under No Child Left Behind and its successors, the federal government for more than a decade has required public schools to test all students in math and reading in grades 3-8, plus once in high school. Science tests are required in different age groups as well.

Those rules don’t change under the new federal education bill that passed last year, said ODE Senior Executive Director of Accountability Chris Woolard, who argues that state testing is needed as an important backstop to make sure kids are progressing.

Woolard, who has grade-school-age kids, said parents should want both local information from their teachers, and information from the state tests, in checking student progress.

Jim Wright, ODE’s director of testing, said those two pieces should complement one another, and if they’re way off, a parent should speak up.

Oakwood Superintendent Kyle Ramey agreed, encouraging parents to take a holistic approach.

“These tests produce a snapshot, one piece of information that has to be woven into the myriad other things that go on,” Ramey said. “When you go into the classroom and volunteer, do you like what’s happening? Is your child learning, are they reading on grade level? As a parent are you satisfied with the progression of your child with their teacher?

‘Trust but verify’

The nationwide testing movement took off in 2001, in part because of a concern that children were getting left behind.

Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Fordham Institute, a charter school advocacy group, said the changes had bipartisan support.

Civil rights activists on the left wanted schools to pay more attention to the education of underserved low-income and minority kids, he said, while accountability hawks on the right called for increased focus on student outcomes.

“It’s sort of a trust but verify situation,” Churchill said. “We absolutely need to trust teachers who are with students every day … but you have to have an external measure — some evidence that learning is going on … when we’re spending $10,000 per kid per year.”

Tommy Baudendistel, a parent of students in Valley View schools, said he wants some measure to make sure ineffective teachers aren’t stunting students’ growth.

But he also said the current model gets in the way of important learning.

“I go back to the school and do an engineering week in the spring where we do some really cool projects,” said Baudendistel, who is a researcher at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “But we have to wait for the (state) tests to be over because they never have time. Critical thinking and creativity are lacking, but how do you teach that if you don’t have enough freedom to do it?”

Bumps ahead

State Rep. Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, said lawmakers need to give educators a chance to implement the rules before instituting yet another round of reforms.

“We’ve been very impatient about expecting people to turn really massive ships around on a dime and I don’t’ think that’s possible,” he said.

Gunlock said educators should take a measured look at the testing data.

“All we’re asking with the report card is for schools to look at your data, figure out where you’re weak, and make some adjustments in curriculum or teaching or whatever to help the students be successful,” he said. “People should just look at that, rather than saying we’re going to die over this thing.”

But, Gunlock warned, there still will be bumps. Added Fordham’s Churchill: No matter what testing system is used, the state will never make everyone happy.

Clifford, the West Carrollton superintendent, said he hopes the state will reconsider how it measures accountability.

“There’s so much that our kids need when they move out that isn’t on a test score,” he said. “When you get your job, they didn’t ask how you did in Algebra 2. They wanted to know can he problem-solve, can he think critically, is he innovative, does he know what to do (when things go wrong)?

“That’s the guy we’re going to hire.”

Staff Writer Josh Sweigart contributed to this report.

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