Metro

Mass. wonders whether students being overtested

At Boston’s Mather Elementary School, fourth-grade teacher Tamika Fluker has to spend a lot of time administering tests to students in her class, which many say takes away valuable teaching time.

john tlumacki/globe staff

At Boston’s Mather Elementary School, fourth-grade teacher Tamika Fluker has to spend a lot of time administering tests to students in her class, which many say takes away valuable teaching time.

A high school English teacher in Boston likens those behind the testing craze sweeping Massachusetts to the approach of Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster in the Charles Dickens novel “Hard Times.” Gradgrind sternly told faculty to plant nothing but facts in their students’ minds, “and root out everything else.’’

Teachers statewide complain that, like the headmaster’s demands for facts and little else, preparation for the dizzying array of standardized tests can easily consume about a month of schooling and leave little time for creative projects. Some schools administer assessments every six weeks to ensure classes are on track to pass the MCAS, a burden that stresses students to tears and even nausea.

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In response to complaints by teachers, parents, and students, state education officials have ordered an independent review to gauge the scope and impact of standardized testing. Such a move would once have seemed unthinkable for a state that has long been a national leader in standardized testing, and one of the biggest defenders.

But the proliferation of tests has sparked concern that the exams may have grown excessive.

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“It’s assessment gone wild,” said Matthew Malone, the state’s education secretary. “Everywhere we go to talk to teachers, administrators, and parents the consensus is we test too much. I think we need to find a better balance.”

State officials say they have no idea how many standardized tests are being administered in local schools. Pictured: A Mather Elementary School fourth grade class.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

State officials say they have no idea how many standardized tests are being administered in local schools. Pictured: A Mather Elementary School fourth grade class.

The goal of the review, which will be conducted by an outside consultant, is to determine whether precious instruction time is being sacrificed too often for a bean-counter-like quest to uniformly plot student progress.

State officials say they have no idea how many standardized tests are being administered in local schools — beyond the ones the state requires, such as the MCAS — and how many hours are devoted to these additional assessments. In many cases, districts have stepped up testing to avoid interventions or even takeovers of struggling schools by the state.

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“America has always been a place where people think deeply about issues and [are urged] not to give a pat answer,” said Dolores Wood, the English teacher who invoked Dickens to illustrate her critique. “Now we are being boxed in by these tests and not [allowed] to think outside of these boxes. This is what we are training kids to do.”

But one high-ranking education official is unconvinced there is too much testing. Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said he finds “a fair amount of hyperbole” in the testing debate and hopes the impending study will help cool the rhetoric and help the state find a solution.

“I worry that often the comments that get the attention are comments that reflect the worst-case scenarios,” Chester said. “It’s not clear to me that the worst-case scenarios are indicative of what’s going on across the Commonwealth.”

That Massachusetts is willing to pursue such an analysis after dismissing two decades of complaints represents a quiet philosophical shift that has occurred as Governor Deval Patrick has remade the composition of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, appointing some members, including chairwoman Margaret McKenna, who are more skeptical about testing.

But the philosophy of the board could shift again as Governor-elect Charlie Baker appoints new members as terms expire.

Baker, a Republican who served on the education board during the early years of the MCAS, believes “reliable measures of academic achievement are absolutely essential,” but is open to the idea of reducing testing time if it does not compromise the quality of the assessments, according to a survey on education issues that the campaign provided to the Globe.

Teachers, parents, and school administrators have been raising concerns about testing since the 1990s when the state developed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams. That test ushered in academic standards that had to be taught in every public school statewide, and also made passing the MCAS a high school graduation requirement.

A succession of state political and education leaders have credited the change with boosting the quality of schools and catapulting students to the top of several national standardized tests, such as the SAT. Through the years, testing proliferated under state and federal mandates.

The state currently is rolling out a new assessment system for kindergarten students, an online testing system that could replace the MCAS, and is also turning to a teacher evaluation system that requires the use of MCAS scores and one other measurement of student achievement, which could force some districts to add a new standardized test.

The changes in assessment tests come four years after a law was enacted that enables the state to take over chronically low-performing schools. That, in turn, has prompted dozens of schools to introduce “diagnostic” assessments to determine whether students are on track to pass the MCAS and avoid state sanctions. About 40 Boston schools have hired contractors to administer these tests.

The number of tests given in one grade can be extensive, many teachers told the Boston School Committee earlier this year as part of an effort to draw attention to the issue. One teacher testified that her third-graders take tests totaling about 120 hours, the equivalent of 20 school days.

The growing role of testing has redefined the atmosphere and conversation in many schools. Some principals have created “data walls” to plot the progress of each student and classroom, conjuring up images of MCAS war rooms. Holyoke teachers and parents protested data walls earlier this year.

Similarly, teachers in suburban schools complain that in-depth projects, field trips, and other memorable learning opportunities get pushed aside.

“I really think we are throwing a lot at them at a young age,” said Wendy Hasson, a fifth-grade teacher in Taunton. “We need to get back to why we educate and what we hope for our children.”

But many school superintendents and charter school leaders do not believe students are overtested. A survey of administrators conducted this year by the state education department found that 55 percent of respondents believed they had an appropriate amount of testing, while 33 percent said there was too much.

“Schools are not testing for the sake of testing,” said Kamal Chavda, chief data and accountability officer for the Boston schools.

Chavda, however, added that some schools should do a better job using testing data to identify strengths and weaknesses in classroom instruction.

Glorya Wornum, a senior at Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers in the Fenway, wonders how much more she could have learned in the city’s school system if not for all the testing.

“I’m literally taking a test almost every other day,” said Wornum, a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council, a citywide advocacy group working on the testing issue. “You finish one and you have to get ready for another one. It’s nerve-racking.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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