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Episode 16: Assess the Test Part II

 Our conversation about testing was so robust that we broke it into two parts. Did you miss the first part of “Assess the Test”? Listen to it here.

The impact standardized testing has on students, educators and school communities extends long beyond test day.

In Part II of Assess the Test, we move beyond talking about the tests themselves and discuss the overall accountability system.

Join us for this exploration of how 20 years of “accountability” in Florida have drained the joy out of teaching and learning.

Guests

Anthony Colucci, President Brevard Federation of Teachers

Vicki Kidwell, President Clay County Education Association 

Bethany Koch, High school English teacher from Clay County

Matt Yount, Teacher from Brevard County

Transcript

Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA president Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools, be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit FEAweb.org/podcast.

Sharon Nesvig: You’re listening to Educating from the Heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with support professionals, parents and students as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.

Luke Flynt, Host: Welcome to another episode of Educating from the Heart. I am Luke Flynt, along with my cohost, Tina Dunbar. And Tina, you know, schools are the place where a childhood happens, where students get to explore their creativity, learn to think critically and develop the skills they will need to succeed in life and in the workplace. Or at least that’s what they should be.

Tina Dunbar, Host: You’re so right, Luke. And in our last episode, we chatted with four educators about Florida’s transition away from the FSA to a new testing system. While many educators are excited about the shift, many also shared their concern that this might be more of the same, a new name without major changes to the test itself.

In the second part of our conversation, we’ll focus less on the tests themselves and more on the overall accountability system. Our educators even address how testing has transformed our schools from places of joy and creativity to a place filled with anxiety due to the intense focus on standardized assessments.

You know, Luke, you are so right. Life is so much more than knowing the right answers to a series of multiple-choice questions.

Luke: It absolutely is. There is so much about our students that cannot be measured but is still very important to know. Part two of Assessing the Test begins with Bethany Koch sharing her love for English and how it can enrich the lives of all students. But she also shares the reality that Florida’s fixation on testing has had in her classroom, as well as the classroom of many of her colleagues, where the love for teaching and learning has been replaced with dread.

Bethany Koch, HS English teacher: I think one of the most heartbreaking, and someone that loves English, right? Like I went into this because I love English. I love books. But one of the most heartbreaking consequences of the FSA is that it is effectively killing some of the things that students and teachers love about our subject. We’ve seen the loss of fiction and poetry. And now our new standards are a little bit better on that, but, we focus more heavily upon non-fiction texts. We focus heavily on civics texts, which should be covered in history. And ultimately English is not something that can be distilled down to right and wrong like math. It’s not one right answer. So, we have sucked creativity dry out of this subject because we want, and what English teachers have been doing to, in order to succeed on these tests is asking kids to only focus on the standards where you can have these right and wrong answers, and to think about English and writing and reading in very black and white terms. And it’s painful. It is painful every year to, you know, to do that.

Matt Yount, Brevard Teacher: I think to Bethany’s point, I think a dangerous, subtext that we’re sending is that if a subject is not tested, it’s therefore not as valuable. And I think that’s a dangerous precedent to kind of imply. That’s what causes the arts to evaporate. That’s what causes certain electives to cease to exist when funding decisions are having to be made. And so while I love ELA [English Language Arts] as much as Bethany, I also recognize there are students that will barely read on grade level, but their creativity is not limited to their words.

I think the elephant in the room is that we only have a finite amount of time in any given day, right? So, one thing that’s always been daunting to me as a teacher, the standards are sometimes so ambitious that they’re actually not serving the purpose that they were originally intended to serve because they can’t really guide instruction. If you’ve given me four hours of instructional goals, and I’ve got a two-hour block. So, I think we’re going to still have to rectify every special interest group can’t get what they want. I can’t teach these kids every single thing they’re supposed to know about ancient history in a 25-minute block, four times a week. It’s just not reality. So, I think we need to have deeper conversations about are the standards really expected to be taught in a 180-day school year that’s interrupted 20% of the time by testing (and then who knows how many percent of the time by all the other minutia that we deal with on a daily basis inside public schools)?

Bethany Koch: And they know they aren’t because they’re not tested. Right. We talked about research, right? Research is a standard that we do. And as a teacher, I could progress, monitor that, right? I could give my lessons and build in checkpoints and summative and formative assessments to determine whether I’m effectively teaching research. But do I value research then over a skill that I know is going to be on that test over a skill that I know is going to reflect on my performance it’s going to reflect on my possible pay for the next year?  I mean, Matt is absolutely right, and this is not like his confessional moment, this is a confessional moment for profession. We do not teach the skills that aren’t going to be tested because those are not the ones that are going to be reflected on us.

Luke: This discussion of how the testing has narrowed the curriculum, I think is a really important one. And candidly, one of my major concerns when I first heard about the proposal for this state-based progress monitoring is that the curriculum would be narrowed even more.

And so when, when I taught, I had a phenomenal administrator, so shout out to Dave Kramek. He treated his educators like we were professionals, and I was allowed to go in that classroom and teach. I know that was almost, you know, six, seven years ago. I know that increasingly educators are told that they all have to be on the same page on the same day, and if the state is now going to test and test and test, it seems like the pressure from up high for everybody to be rigid is going to increase that much more. And I see some nodding of heads, so I think you agree, so I’ll stop talking and just maybe if you can expound a little more on, on the head nodding,

Anthony Colucci, BTF President: What I’m hearing from our teachers is the pressure to be on the same page is preventing them from differentiating instruction properly, which goes against what you should be doing for progress monitoring. So, do you all want us on the same page or do you want us tailoring instruction based on progress monitoring? So, we have a bunch of different goals going on simultaneously that do not work well together. So, I totally agree that may become a problem.

Matt Yount: I think something that’s compounding that problem too, Anthony, is that we’re seeing a, a veteran teacher core leaving in droves, and it’s being replaced, if it’s being replaced at all, it’s being replaced by out of area teachers, which are some of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with, but don’t have the traditional educational pedagogy or brand-new teachers. And so, I think districts are trying to like bridge that gap if you will by having these cookie cutter lessons made, but all that’s really doing is hamstringing the veteran teachers that are able to work within their experience and their bag of tricks, so to speak, to reach those students and meet those standards. And at the same time, ironically, providing undue stress to those young teachers that haven’t quite figured out that you’re allowed to go off the page if it’s a good learning opportunity for students.

I work with a confidence that, you know, I don’t think most have of “I’m going to do what’s best for my kids every day.” And if that’s what’s on the page, then it’s, what’s on the page. If that’s a deeper discussion that we’re diving into, then I’m taking that and that timestamp can go somewhere else and I’m going to have that deep discussion. But I think a lot of teachers are working with a fear mentality in a pressurized situation where they think that at any moment, if they’re caught teaching anything outside of the plan, there’s going to be these repercussions and ramifications. And maybe that’s so, maybe it’s just a percentage.

Vicki Kidwell, CEA, Pres: One of the things that we always fight for in Clay is having the teacher autonomy to see where your kid, you know, cause we’re progress monitoring constantly. Where are my kids? What do I need to spend a little more time on before I move forward? And yesterday there’s a lovely map, but you know, I can’t move on to, you know, the next thing until this, this foundational thing is a little firmer. Absolutely that’s a worry, Luke. Absolutely.

Bethany Koch: I think continuing to put the pressure on schools and teachers and students, you know, the grading system, whether you’re an A, B, C or D school based upon the standardized test is it’s flawed too, right? Because that’s what leads us, where we would be preparing for our progress monitoring. I mean, that’s what we do now. We do quarterly assessments to prepare for the FSA. We do more testing to prepare for the test. And that’s what would happened. We would be testing to prepare for the progress monitoring. And I feel like that’s a great disservice because we’re all worried about failing, right. Being judged a failure.

Luke: Yeah. And I don’t really have a question here, but just, you know, to point out for anybody who might be listening. If you have lived your whole life in Florida, Matt’s suggestion of getting rid of school grades might sound radical; it’s not. The majority of states in the country do not have an A through F grading scale. The federal government does require some sort of accountability system, and schools are rated everywhere. But there are states that don’t use punitive terms like “failing schools.”

They instead look at those schools that need the most help and say, we’re going to give them the most help instead of label them and blame them and shame them. So, again, no question there, but just wanted to make sure because like so often when I talk to people, and especially new educators or students who grew up in Florida, they don’t know any better because the only thing they’ve ever known is an A through F grading system.

So, they think it’s natural. It’s not, it is terribly unnatural to take a school that is already serving the neediest population, and then turn around and blame that school for the students’ performance, rather than coming in and saying, we’re going to give you the help you need. I’ll get off my soap box.

Matt Yount: Well, and speaking of disservice to kids in schools, I think we need to touch back on that school grading concept. I don’t mind data being shared if it’s legitimately obtained data, but I feel like school grades are a gross oversimplification of one data point that really is very confusing to parents.

I feel like it doesn’t take into account a lot of environmental factors or any other issues or any other ancillary programs that may be at that particular school. And I think it just furthers the achievement gap because now you’re just going to have this abandoned ship mentality of those with resources to do so to leave the quote “failing schools” or the D schools. And everybody’s going to the A schools and then you’re going to have teachers flocking to the A schools because they’ll have less behavior issues and they’ll have less district accountability and state mandated lesson planning and things like that. And you’re just creating the problem you were trying to solve. You know, it’s not going to be the D schools working hard to get a C, it’s going to be the D schools just trying not to become an F school because it’ll mean all of this other, you know, rigmarole and punishment. So, I just think that maybe it’s in a separate piece of legislation, we need to cancel that school grading policy.

Anthony Colucci: Yeah. And that that’s exactly right. I’m glad you brought that up because I don’t think that the public understands when these exams are given that there are always going to be students that are considered failing because they’re being scored on a curve, so to speak. And they’re always going to say you scored the lowest so, you’re, you’re a level one. But maybe they are hitting a certain bar, so it should be, are you hitting the bar and not a comparison to the other students.

And that is also what they do when they grade the schools as well. There is always going to be X amount of F schools because they are grading them on a curve and not to a bar that is in place. And that that’s, that’s really disheartening when you figure that one out.

Matt Yount: Teachers are more than their test scores. Students are more than their grades. Schools are more than, you know, some number on a page. I just want to send all love, all honor, all respect to my teacher colleagues, my school-based employee colleagues. We are fighting the good fight we are doing, you know, good work. It is hard. It is challenging, but you know, you’re appreciated. You’re loved by those students, even on those days where it feels like you’re not making a lot of headway. You are planting so much good seed into good ground. Doesn’t matter what an assessment says.

Bethany Koch: Teachers are professionals. We are trained. We are certified. We continue our education. And for the sake of our profession and for the sake of the students we teach, we have to start treating teachers like professionals. We have to start trusting that teachers are doing the very best they can by their students and trying to do their job and are doing that progress monitoring in their classroom, whether you see that on a data page or not. And I hope that the state gets that message and applies a positive progress monitoring system in a way that benefits to teachers and students in schools rather than hurting us, which is all that I’ve seen as a result of standardized tests so far in my career.

Anthony Colucci: But what I would just say directly related to this bill is that this is an opportunity. This is an opportunity to positively impact our schools. But if Tallahassee is going to do it the right way, they have to bring teacher voice into it. And if they bring teacher voice into it, there will be buy-in, and the system is more likely to be successful. And if the system is more likely to be successful, our students are going to be more likely to be successful. And that is why we are all here.

Tina: Well, I’d say Matt and his colleagues really summed it up. Teachers and school support professionals need to know that they are loved, honored, and respected by their students and by so many parents and even their community. It’s impossible to use a standardized test to measure your value and the impact that you have on your students. You are the real life-changers.

Luke: And, you know, Tina, I could not agree more with the importance of teachers and really the entire educational village who makes such an impact on the lives of our students. The unfortunate reality is the legislature makes a really big impact on the lives of our teachers and support staff, and often not in a good way.

If you want to follow the legislative process, this testing bill or any other bill, as it moves through the legislature, you can find the most updated information on our website at www.feaweb.org/session. Again, that’s FEAweb.org/session. You can also follow us on social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram at Florida EA

Tina: That’s it for our episode. Until we meet again, keep educating from the heart!

Aurora Gonzalez: If you enjoy our podcast, ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe on our website@feaweb.org/EducatingFromTheHeart. Send your comments and feedback to heart@floridaea.org. Again, that’s heart, H E A R T at Florida EA dot O R G. Or you can leave a voicemail at 850-201-3384  

Sharon Nesvig: Educating from the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators 

 

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