Posted: 7:00 a.m. Sunday, May 4, 2014

SPECIAL REPORT

Common Core brings over-testing into question

Legislative efforts span across both sides of issue.

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Common Core brings over-testing into question photo
Highland Elementary School teacher Tristan Fuerbacher works with fourth-grade students Abbie Winsted, Abbie Vaughan, Joseph Withrow and Autum Spears during an after-school enrichment program.
Common Core brings over-testing into question photo
Highland Elementary School fourth-graders Elijah Washmuth and Owen Wilson work on a math pre-test during an after-school intervention program at the school.
Common Core brings over-testing into question photo
Highland Elementary School fourth-graders Joseph Withrow and Abbie Vaughan work on a math lesson during an after-school enrichment program.

By Hannah Poturalski

Staff Writer

A great debate in education is swirling around whether or not students face too many standardized tests from local and state mandates.

Several organized efforts have cropped up in recent years aiming to reduce or repeal what critics claim to be an over-testing of students in grades kindergarten through 12.

There are now at least 186 bills related to assessments being considered in state legislatures in 2014, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The bills stretch across a variety of testing subjects including Common Core, GEDs, English language learner testing and funding issues.

“The United States as a whole is obsessed with tests; we are over-reliant on tests,” said Robin Hiller, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a national group formed a year ago to protect and preserve public education. “We’re opposed to all high-stakes standardized testing.”

The use of standardized tests to measure student achievement has only been on the rise in Ohio since the first proficiency tests in the 1990s, to No Child Left Behind in 2001, to the state’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010.

A 2013 study by the American Federation of Teachers found that in two, medium-size urban school districts, the time students spend taking tests ranged from 20 to 50 hours per year in heavily tested grades. In addition, students can spend 60 to 110 hours per year in test prep.

“There have always been standardized tests but what’s changed is the sheer volume and how much weight seems to be put on these standardized tests,” said Beverly Smolyansky, a parent in the Lakota district and psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Liberty Twp.

Districts across Ohio are currently in their last testing window for the traditional Ohio Achievement Assessments, as the tests will be replaced with a new round of online assessments next year. Those test scores translate to a district’s letter grades on the state report card.

Ohio is one of 19 states in the consortium Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) that has developed new computer-based, K-12 assessments in mathematics and English language arts to be aligned to the Common Core standards adopted by 44 states.

Ohio education leaders also developed new learning standards for science and social studies that come with another set of online assessments developed by American Institutes of Research.

The new learning standards — detailing what students should know by the end of each grade level — demand deeper critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to prepare students for college and careers, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

Charlton said it’s been Ohio’s stagnant performance in national and global education rankings that has attributed to the need for more rigorous learning standards.

“Ohio has slipped in the past years; we’re not ranked as highly as we used to because we kept our goals low and stagnant,” Charlton said. “Our proficiency levels have been the same for 10 years. We have a reading crisis in Ohio.”

State Representative Andy Thompson (R-Marietta) has authored a bill — currently sitting in the House education committee — that would void the state’s adoption of the Common Core standards and use of PARCC or other assessments related to the Common Core. He affirms that states should develop their own learning standards.

Proponents of the bill to end the Common Core in Ohio voiced concerns about learning standards being too vague or not developmentally appropriate in some cases; students being tested too often; and too much student information being shared with companies.

Those who testified in favor of the Common Core cited the need for more critical thinking and close reading of complex texts; a greater emphasis on written responses; and the time and financial investment that’s already been made by districts and teachers across the state.

Thompson said while there have been two hearings on the bill, it will likely not reach a third hearing because of resistance from chairman of the education committee, Gerald L. Stebelton (R-Lancaster).

During the last hearing in November — that was cut off after 2.5 hours — more than 600 citizens packed the Statehouse, Thompson said. Testimony was split with 27 opponents and 25 proponents providing testimony.

“The talking points sound really good, but ultimately, this should be about the state of Ohio and parents and students having some input in this thing,” Thompson said.

One advocacy group, Ohioans Against Common Core, was founded in March 2013 by Heidi Huber, of Anderson Twp. The group has several thousand website subscribers and has spurred local groups of concerned parents and teachers, Huber said.

Huber said she first learned about the Common Core through her work at a Christian charter school. She said the more she learned about it, the more concerned she was that something so impactful had been kept off her radar.

“It was kept off the radar on purpose,” Huber said. “It was a covert implementation.”

Huber said it’s troublesome that local control is ceasing to exist anymore across Ohio. She said while states and local districts can develop their own curriculum, it has to be based on national standards and national assessments.

“I want people to realize this is not just the latest fad in education; it’s the capstone to the idea of federal education,” Huber said. “This is No Child Left Behind on steroids … with incessant testing and data mining.”

Local state representative Tim Derickson(R-Oxford), who sits on the House education committee, said the public hearings in legislative committees are important because it allows the legislators to hear from both sides on a certain issue. He said it’s those public forums, as well as speaking to constituents, that help guide legislators’ decisions.

“I’m not as concerned with the raising of standards as I am with the actual testing and how it drives curriculum and data collection on our students,” Derickson said. “We’re always changing the rules on education requirements, evaluations and how teachers teach. It seems like we do it too much and we ought to just let the teachers teach … and let them catch up on the laws imposed.”

Under the new learning standards, spring assessments will be given in multiple sections over several days, rather than a single day for a single subject, said Keith Millard, assistant superintendent of instruction for Hamilton City Schools.

“The scope of testing in the district pales in comparison to what’s going to occur next year should full implementation of testing occur,” Millard said.

Millard said time spent on state-mandated tests each year ranges from five hours for a third grader, to 7.5 hours for a fifth grader, to 12.5 hours for a sophomore. On top of that, district-mandated tests amount to five to 10 hours per year.

In the 2014-15 school year, districts will move from a week of OAA testing to a three-month-long testing window that begins with performance-based assessments in the four core subjects during February and March, and finishes with end-of-year course exams in the four subjects during April and May.

“Conservatively, you can double the time that you’re looking at,” Millard said. “So it’s going to dramatically alter how schools conduct business in regards to testing.”

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