Administrators are standing up
We received this letter from a passionate and experienced superintendent in PA’s award-winning West Chester Area School District. It should serve as an example of how passionate administrators all over the country are standing up for what’s right and calling an end to our nation’s toxic testing culture. Enjoy!
May 22, 2015
Many of us are quick to fault the U.S. public education system, comparing it to other small European countries, and finding deficits and gaps. The system, and the way it’s funded, are far from perfect. However we manage to educate generations of children who go on to do incredible things.
Now we are asking our students to do something that’s entirely unfair: To spend weeks and weeks filling in bubbles, taking standardized tests and having their entire educational ambition directed toward passing them. This is not what public education was intended to do, nor should do.
As the superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, I believe in very high standards for our students. I believe in accountability. I do believe that tests can be a good thing. But not the way we are being forced, by the government, to give them. We officially began the PSSA testing window on April 13 and we will continue to test through May 27 when we finish with the high school Keystone Exams, a new graduation requirement. Beginning with the class of 2017, even a straight ‘A’ student who doesn’t do well on these tests won’t receive a diploma, under state law.
State and federally mandated testing has been around for a long time and is certainly here to stay. But it’s become a massive burden that is stifling creativity and love of teaching and learning.
West Chester has consistently ranked in the top 10 percent among school districts in the state with testing data. In 2012 a new set of rules said we need to calculate how well our schools are doing using a system called School Performance Profiles (SPP). This system requires a new set of metrics but also includes a teacher/principal evaluation model tied to student achievement on state tests. Our district SPP ranks fifth among 500 school districts in PA.
While our district has embraced high standards and accountability, we now spend the first seven months of the school year preparing to take three standardized tests, then we spend approximately six weeks giving tests to students. Unlike private and parochial schools, public schools are mandated to use these tests to determine graduation for students, and for teacher and administrator evaluations. It is positively stressing us – and our system – to the max.
Our teachers, students, and parents all say the extreme amount of time focused on testing is causing ridiculous amounts of stress in the classroom, faculty room, and at home. The angst is palpable as you walk through our hallways. Where is there time for creativity in teaching? Where is there time for exploration and collaboration? Our talented staff do their very best to find ways to incorporate what needs to be tested into their dynamic lesson plans, but it’s difficult given the time constraints and enormous amount of material being covered.
Ultimately that negativity is going to drive down our test scores. Learning should be challenging, but also enjoyable and exciting. Teaching should be dynamic and creative. We’re missing so much of that because of these tests. I am not advocating a system without any kind of testing, rigor, or accountability, but what we’re doing right now isn’t working. There is a better way and it starts with local school districts making decisions about graduation requirements and how to measure student progress toward the Pa State Standards.
I have been gathering stories to share with our legislators about how these tests are negatively impacting our kids, parents, and staff. I have continued to tell our lawmakers that change is sorely needed.
Teachers have literally sent me hundreds of examples of how students are worried, anxious, and depressed. The rules for taking these exams are crazy, as well. Every bulletin board has to be covered so kids can’t make a reference to anything for help. Springtime in a school should be full of excitement and learning. Not anymore. The last three weeks our schools have looked more like prisons than educational institutions. The rules allow students to take as much time as they need but once they close the booklet, the session is over and they can’t return to it. There is no research to support that any of these test environments are helpful, supportive, or represent good pedagogy.
I hope you will join me in advocating for change. Tell your legislators how you feel about the high stakes testing that is dominating our schools.
We live in an outstanding community, supportive of its public schools. Through all of this, our teachers – and all of our staff members – have not lost sight of the positive impact they have on our students every day. I am grateful to them for that, and hope you will join me in thanking them.
Superintendent, West Chester Area School District