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Yellow Springs schools aim to opt out of tests

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When Geneva Gano and Joshua Paddison requested an exemption last fall from some of the standardized tests their children in second grade and kindergarten were being asked to take at Mills Lawn School, they didn’t know where the inquiry would lead. Standardized state testing appeared to be required for all students, but the couple had read about schools in New York and elsewhere where parents had successfully opted out of what Gano and Paddison find to be an overwhelming and unnecessary amount of testing for very small children. They wanted to see if they could relieve their own children of the burden.

So the couple was encouraged to learn this week that the Ohio legislature recently approved an education bill that gives Yellow Springs schools a chance to apply for a waiver from any and all state and federally mandated standardized tests. And at least some of the language in a portion of HB 487, according to local district Superintendent Mario Basora, was drafted in the local school board office in April, during a visit by local representative Chris Widener, president pro tempore of the Ohio Senate. 

The waiver is not guaranteed. As a member of the Ohio Innovative Learning Network, Yellow Springs is one of just 15 districts out of a total 614 in Ohio that are eligible to apply for exemption from tests such as the Ohio Achievement Assessment, the Ohio Graduation Assessment and the newly instituted PARC assessments that tie 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to student performance. 

Any reduction in the curricular control that  testing imposes on teachers is a good thing, teachers union representative Vickie Hitchcock said this week. The application will require some work from teachers to vet assessment and evaluation alternatives, and if the school receives the waiver, the union may need a slight contract revision, she said. But especially amidst the challenge to implement a new, more student-led, inquiry-based education system, teachers would benefit from not having their evaluations based on student performance.

“Anything that would give teachers relief from being evaluated by a test is widely supported,” Hitchcock said. “It’s not that teachers won’t teach the standards, it just doesn’t put them under the pressure of what test scores the students achieve.”

Gano, an Antioch College faculty member, and Paddison, who also works in the education field, are enthusiastic about the shot at a testing waiver for both students and teachers. 

“The idea of opting out of testing sounds like an innovative way to allow creative solutions through collaboration between the superintendent, higher administrators and teachers — that feels really good to me,” Gano said. “It’s heartening to know that our district is interested in taking these paths. It’s not going to be easy, but the fact that we’ve got people with the energy and interest in it is a good sign.”

The couple’s main concerns in asking for their own exemption were centered on the disruptively high volume of a particular STAR test for their kids and the idea of tying teacher evaluations to testing. Gano also didn’t see standardized tests fitting well with project-based education.

“We are concerned about STAR’s potential negative impact, especially at the youngest grade levels, in terms of narrowing the curriculum and promoting a testing culture that potentially alienates students from loving school and becoming lifelong learners,” the couple wrote in their exemption request to the school in October. “We remain concerned about how standardized computer-based tests such as STAR negatively shapes classroom climate and perceptions of “good” teaching.”

In parallel to the family’s attempt to gain an individual exemption, the school district was also working to get traction for an exemption for all students in the district. Asking teachers to get creative in implementing a new curricular model and then tying their hands by regulating the pace and type of learning through standardized tests, could be counter-productive, Basora said. And tying teachers’ evaluations to student performance on a standardized test could further serve to stem the innovation and experimentation that the district is asking teachers to try.

“The big fear that a lot of teachers have had is that traditional testing doesn’t measure up well with PBL and student-directed, inquiry-based learning,” Basora said. 

So the district aimed to see if it could change things, at least for its own teachers and students. Basora collaborated with Springfield City School District to help Yellow Springs become part of the Innovative Schools network. And for the better part of a year, he has been contacting state representatives, inviting them to come to the school and see the work teachers and students are doing to help students work together to lead their own learning at their own pace. State Representative Rick Perales visited the school in the fall, followed by State Senator Peggy Lehner, who leads the Senate Education Committee, in the spring. And then Widener came to hear the school’s views and spent an hour and a half talking with Basora about how to add a waiver to the education bill.   

Basora said he found common ground with all the Republican representatives, especially Widener, who agrees that inquiry-based education is ideal for producing graduates with the complex problem-solving skills Ohio businesses sorely need. 

“He wants jobs in Ohio, and he sees the connections between inquiry-based, collaborative elements and what employers are saying they need in today’s graduates,” he said. “We need kids graduating from college creating brand new industries, social engineers with creativity, collaborative ability and critical thinking skills — you don’t get that by teaching kids to fill in a bubble on a test.”  

The waiver application is due to the state in the next few weeks, and the district won’t learn the results until the end of August. A waiver committee including Basora, Principals Tim Krier and Matt Housh, district Librarian Eli Hurwitz and teachers Hitchcock and Jack Hatert has already started drafting alternative assessments and evaluations.

As a testament to the district’s success in innovation, the district has been asked to make a presentation at the Learning Network’s national conference this week. The administrators and four teachers will talk about the “good, bad and the ugly” of their journey to implement PBL. Whether the district gets the waiver or not, the schools are already on the path to creating a unique learning system that “is what our kids need to be successful in the 21st century and reach their goals in life,” Basora said.

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