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School Board— School testing waiver not yet met

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At a meeting in the Mills Lawn auditorium on Wednesday, Sept. 17, Superintendent Mario Basora invited the 30 or so attendees to move to the front rows of seating. He wanted the meeting to be more of a conversation, as the discussion was heavy on issues personal to parents. The meeting was an overview of the standardized tests district students will be taking this year, and what the district’s role is in choosing those tests. Attendees were also updated on the progress of the district’s application for a waiver from all testing from the State of Ohio.

The five-year waiver that will allow Village schools to replace traditional tests with competency-based assessments was approved on the state level in April and is awaiting approval on the federal level. Yellow Springs was one of seven school districts and seven STEM schools in the state to receive the state waiver.

If it’s approved, according to Basora, a waiver would reduce overall testing by about 50 to 70 percent. The federal government can approve test waivers as long as, at some point in each of elementary, middle and high school, students are assessed using nationally rated tests in English and math, with the addition of a science test in high school. A district will also have to give as-of-yet unspecified reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8.

A consortium of waiver districts will choose what tests they want to administer. Members of the consortium will all give the same tests. Basora said that waiver districts met recently to discuss alternative testing, and expects the district will see what other options are available within a few months. These will be embedded in the curriculum, part of the unit presently being taught as opposed to a comprehensive test at the end of the year. Taking into account the time it has taken to get the waiver passed on the state level, Basora said the waiver likely won’t take effect until the 2016/17 school year.

There are still some concerns about the effects of opting-out for the district. On the state report card, for example, a score of 0 is given to all students who opt out of the tests. The district’s entire student body would get a failing grade, Basora said, even though students who opt out of tests are typically students who would score well anyway. Basora said he is advocating for a sort of asterisk on the district report card to indicate the district is implementing a philosophy that encourages learning and development in ways that aren’t correctly measured by traditional test-taking.

According to the Ohio Department of Education, districts with waivers won’t suffer a state funding decrease. The district has a ‘safe harbor’ period for this year and next in which test scores won’t affect teacher assessments or the district’s report card. Safe harbor doesn’t apply for third grade reading tests or high school graduation requirements. Repercussions in federal funding are currently unknown. Word is that the federal government can withhold funds if certain goals are not met, Basora said, though this hasn’t happened in states where opting-out was approved on the federal level. The district and its partner schools are now working together to draft a common waiver application for federal approval.

District testing this year
Perhaps in response to advocacy for less standardized testing, the state made the decision to have students spend less time overall this year on tests. While all grades will not see the same level of reductions, said Basora, there have been some changes to the amount of class time devoted to tests and the ways in which they are administered.

One of the changes in testing is the elimination of the PARCC tests. MLS principal Matt Housh explained that the results of PARCC were what the district expected — poor — because the test is far beyond the skill level of the students it is given to. In Algebra I, for example, a passing score is 15 percent. The tests were so “exceptionally difficult and deceiving” that they have been replaced by a series of tests called AIR. These new tests are indicative of the decrease in the amount of time students will spend on testing. In fourth grade, for example, students will have four 90-minute sessions (vs. nine PARCC sessions) at the end of the school year, two in reading and two in math. This is the first year Yellow Springs has done these tests, Housh said. “They are better than PARCC, but not by much.”

The district is continuing to discuss the STAR assessments, which are “universal screeners” for reading and math levels. According to Housh, the district selected these tests because they are relatively unobtrusive – the assessments are given three times per year, and each session takes about 20 minutes. They provide teachers with fall, winter and spring student benchmarks, and the “immediate return of data” helps teachers plan courses and identify students in need of enrichment or intervention.

The district chose the STAR assessments out of ten options provided by the state, and according to Housh, STAR tests are helpful. “They are not used in a punitive way,” Basora added.

YSHS and McKinney principal Tim Krier explained the new high school graduation requirements, starting with this year’s sophomores. Students can graduate in three ways. Students accumulate points based on how well they do on end of the year assessments given in nine classes throughout the high school career. Students are awarded 1 to 4 points based on the performance, and 18 points are needed to graduate. A second option is a “remediation-free” score on the ACT or SAT. The exact score is not yet known, but was estimated by Krier to be around 27 or 28 on the ACT, or the equivalent on the SAT. Krier also said that the state will pay a student’s fee for the first ACT/SAT, and that the district is considering offering an ACT/SAT boot camp to help students prepare for the tests. The third option for graduation is getting a career endorsement, some kind of certificate from an industrial or technology program that would demonstrate a student is career-ready and deserves a diploma.

A schedule of the tests students will take was presented, with the parameters of each test presented and discussed. Other topics of the meeting included the availability of snacks available to students at test time, and that students whose home situations unfortunately include hunger are therefore predisposed not to do well.

Overall there has been some reduction in the amount of tests students are required to take, Basora said, but the testing regimen is “not where the district wants to be.”

He explained that success in standardized testing is a sort of false positive, success measured at the expense of cultivating skills that might not necessarily overlap with test-taking abilities. He explained that school districts that typically did well in testing did so at the expense of recess or art or music classes by doubling the amount of time spent on math and reading, or at least the specific iterations of the subjects as they appear on standardized tests. This approach is at odds with the philosophy of the district and does a disservice to the intellectual development of students.

“There is evidence that standardized testing actually hurts students’ chances of success,” he said. “We measure what we value, not value what we measure.”


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