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Massachusetts teachers unions call for ‘Less Testing. More Learning’


Berkshire Eagle
By Jenn Smith
jsmith@berkshireeagle.com @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter

POSTED:   06/11/2015 06:02:22 PM EDT

Through hashtags and testimony, sticker campaigns and legislative lobbying, educators from the Berkshires to Boston this week are calling for the state to ease up on its testing mandates and policies.

Time, money, staff, technology and training are all listed among the resources teachers and advocates say schools are lacking to properly prepare and assess students and meet the targets of proficiency schools and districts are tasked with.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association this week organized a statewide “Week of Action,” calling for “Less Testing. More Learning,” and used the social media hashtag “#lesstesting” to lobby for the cause.

The Joint Committee on Education met Thursday morning at the Statehouse in Boston to hear 23 bills relative to assessment and school technology. According to the State House News Service, the committee was forced to relocate its hearing from its regular meeting room to the larger Gardner Auditorium after hundreds of teachers, parents and advocates showed up to testify or listen.

Particularly drawing a crowd, as urged by the 110,000-member MTA, was a bill proposed by state Rep. Marjorie C. Decker, D-Cambridge, which, among other things, calls for a three-year moratorium on so-called high-stakes standardized testing and the creation of an Education Reform Review Task Force to conduct and in-depth review of the effectiveness and impact of testing on the commonwealth’s public schools.

Co-sponsors of the bill include local legislators, Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams, Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.

The bill calls for the new task force to convene in September. This fall, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to decide whether to stick with using the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) or adopt the new Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams that are being used by about half of the state’s schools this spring.

In a letter to legislators, MTA President Barbara Madeloni, an outspoken critic of how standardized testing and data is tied to the state’s education accountability system, writes: “Parents, students and teachers across Massachusetts are pushing back against the excessive amount of time and money spent on high-stakes standardized tests. These tests are taking time away from real learning and are narrowing the curriculum in many schools.”

Multiple Berkshire County MTA members spoke out and submitted formal testimony to the state this week, sharing their experiences and reasons for wanting less testing.

A 2013 study commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers found that the time students spent taking tests ranged from 20 to 50 hours per year in “heavily tested grades,” and that “students can spend 60 to more than 110 hours per year in test prep.”

In her written testimony to the Joint Education Committee, Brayton Elementary School art teacher Erica Manville, co-chairwoman of the North Adams Teachers Association and a local political action liaison for the MTA said: “I lose a whole month of my year, if not more, to testing weeks.”

Manville teaches art to 400 children in kindergarten through Grade 7, including her own daughter. She went on to say: “I cannot begin to express to you how important it is to stop and think about what we are doing. We need to examine what these tests are doing to our children … my opinion as an experienced teacher and mother, is that our students are becoming a product of these sterile tests, [they are] bored of school, disinterested, and lack imagination.”

United Educators of Pittsfield President Brendan Sheran is a social studies teacher and department chairman at Pittsfield High School. He said he sees testing as a major cause of stress for his students, in addition to taking on coursework, extracurricular activities and after-school jobs.

“Their anxiety level is at capacity,” he said, when it comes to pursuing proficient scores, not only on PARCC exams, but also on Advanced Placement exams, the latter through which high scores can waive college credits.

Ginger Armstrong, a technology teacher of 12 years in the Lee Public Schools, said she also sees teachers who are frustrated because the curriculum they’re assigned to teach doesn’t seem to align with the content of the exams.

“We don’t know what to teach,” she said, “And we don’t need [students] to feel like a failure if the problem is that the curriculum is not aligned.”

During Thursday’s hearing, others spoke out against some of the proposed legislation.

Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester told the State House News Service that the bills represent a “step backward” for Massachusetts, and could jeopardize as much as $200 million in federal Title I funding to the state.

He also said Massachusetts’ resolve over the past 22 years to remain committed to the standards of the 1993 education reform law is one of the main reasons why student performance has gone from “strong to the strongest in the nation.”

“Any move to suspend that agenda and the accountability piece of that is a step backward and absolutely ill-advised and abandons our commitment to particularly the lowest-performing students in our state, who are often students from low-income backgrounds, students of color. We’ve seen their achievement elevate over the last decade and we need to continue on that path,” Chester said.

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and Race to the Top Coalition joined opponents of the legislation despite agreeing with some of the core critiques of the MCAS exam.

Chester also urged lawmakers to not give into pressure from the teachers unions to pass the bills. “I am concerned that the most vocal and well organized voices are not the voice, necessarily, of the mainstream,” he said.

Sheran said that it’s all the more reason for the public to get involved in the conversation around testing in public schools.

“If more people were aware, they’d might be a lot more vocal,” he said, “because the bottom line is, who’s paying for this — you are — so you should know what’s going on.”

State House News Service content by Matt Murphy was used in this story.