Monday, February 20, 2012

Zais brings back more student tests; teachers wonder why

Because we don't test our students enough, and because the law requires it.

Parents of third-, fourth-, sixth- and seventh-graders, listen up: Your children haven't been suffering enough stress lately with fewer teachers and larger class sizes, so our state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais has the solution: More testing.

Trust me, this is going to work like a charm: Get ready for night sweats, stomach aches, bad dreams and nausea.

And when you write to Superintendent Zais, remember to thank him.

South Carolina Education Superintendent Mick Zais’ budget recommendation could mean reinstating some standardized testing South Carolina students have missed for a couple of years.

At the start of May students across the state will take the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards test, including reading comprehension, math, social studies and science. But only those in fifth and eighth grade will get an early dose of accountability, taking a separate writing section, at the end of March.

Since 1998 state law has mandated writing assessments for all students in the third through eighth grade. In the 2008-2009 school year writing became a stand alone section with a score independent of reading when the PASS test was implemented.

But in the past two years, because of budget cuts, the General Assembly opted to let kids in grades three, four, six and seven off the hook, saving $1.5 million each year. That money was instead distrusted to districts, based on their size, to be used wherever they needed it.

The state spends $14 to 15 million each year in standardized testing.

With state tax revenues up and the economy slowly recuperating, Zais said it’s time to get back to the law.

[Psst. General Zais. Over here.]

[Hey. I'm lovin' the law-and-order schtick. "It's the law, it's time to get back to the law." That stuff kills in the rural districts. You keep that up, you're lookin' at a landslide in 2014 -- that is, unless you're ready for the big leagues and you decide to primary Lindsay Graham. Catch my drift? Anyway, I got a hot tip for you.]

[There's this whole other law: the Education Finance Act. It's been around a while, like, 34 years. It's got this formula in it, supposed to tell lawmakers how much money to appropriate for a base student cost every year. I mean, it's a law, just like this testing thing you're pushing again. Like this year, the EFA says this base student cost is supposed to be almost $2,800 per child, but the legislature's only looking at funding $1,700 and some per child. That's so weak. They don't get it.]

[So, I'm thinkin', because you're the law-and-order guy -- you know, steppin' up to the plate and tellin' everybody, It's the law, you've got to do this testing like the law demands -- well, I'm thinkin', if you work that EFA base student cost into your schtick, 'cause it's the law, too, then lawmakers will have to man up and make it happen.]

[I mean, what else are they gonna do? Break the law? After the law-and-order guy -- a United States Army General, no less, like Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal -- lays down the law and tells them, This is the law. In South Carolina, we follow the law, whether it's testing or base student cost, you know? 'Cause that's who we are. Do work!]

[Man, I can see it now. You tell 'em straight up, this is how it is, and they get in line behind the law-and-order guy, and there's no way you won't go to the majors in 2014: Senator Zais. You gotta admit, that's got a ring. Law-and-order. That's your ticket. You need to put Jay-Dub on that, like, now.]

Education Department spokesman Jay W Ragley said writing is, by law, the department’s second priority after reading and that having a standardized test is both a teaching tool and a way to make sure writing really is being taught in each grade.

“If writing is not going to be assessed then perhaps there’s not as much an emphasis on writing because there’s not an assessment at the end of the year,” Ragley said. “And so we’ve heard from English language arts teachers that we’d like to get back on the regular schedule of assessing our students every year in writing so there are not in lapses in progress.”

He said it’s “critically important” for teachers to be able to look at each student’s previous writing test scores and rubrics to see the areas they will need to help each pupil improve.

I'm glad Ragley mentioned the critical importance of teachers in the testing question.

And, coincidentally, one happened to be available to comment on the question:

But Jackie Hicks, the president of the South Carolina Education Association and a teacher in York County for 28 years, said standardized test score don’t help customize teaching.

Mm. That doesn't really support the whole "we need more testing" theme. And she's been a teacher for 28 years...

She said that each fall teachers get writing samples for each student from the previous year and that by the time information from standardized tests come in, they already know their students strengths and weaknesses.

So, the results of the big testing process come up a day late and a dollar short. That's definitely not a ringing endorsement from the educator community for more testing.

“I think we are focusing too much on standardized tests. The teachers themselves do an excellent job in the classroom to analyze the child’s writing and have the understanding of child development,” Hicks said.

I'm definitely getting the impression that education professionals -- experts in their field -- believe the additional testing is unnecessary, inefficient and duplicative. And if it's duplicative, I know Governor Nikki Haley will want in on this issue.

She also worries that adding more “big test” dates adds anxiety for the younger children, especially third and fourth graders, who she thinks need to first get a solid handle on reading skills.

Whoa. Education experts believe the testing, in addition to being unnecessary, inefficient and duplicative, may also be harmful to the children?

Whose idea was this additional testing? I'd hate to be that guy.

“In third grade what the teachers and the community should want more is to see how well the child is doing on reading and their understanding and comprehension. That’s important first,” Hicks said. “If they can read and comprehend they can really learn the other subjects and the writing will mature.”

Game, set and match. But wait:

On top of that, there’s the fear that with each standardized test component teachers feel pressured to teach students how to pass the test, not necessarily who to become better writers.

Man, o man.

I hope this doesn't discourage Superintendent Zais from pursuing his "it's the law" theme at the legislature. He might really make some headway on getting a modern-day base student cost, even if he has to give up the unnecessary, inefficient, duplicative, harmful and misdirected testing agenda.

Fingers crossed...

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