Testing reform hottest topic of teachers event

KAHULUI – The message that standardized testing is “an abusive and inaccurate assessment” of both students and teachers was shared with more than 1,000 Maui teachers who attended Teacher Institute Day on Maui, hosted Thursday by the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

The event marked the first time it was held since 2009, when the state’s education budget was significantly slashed, HTSA officials said. The event held in the Maui High School gymnasium featured 16 teacher workshops and 23 vendor booths.

Yet the day’s hottest topic was the push to reform standardized testing procedures, which one guest speaker described as “a civil rights movement of our time.”

“The message we have for the country is that we face incredible challenges and social crises in our world today, economic stagnation, endless wars. . . . mass incarceration. None of these problems can be solved by bubbling in a, b, c or d. We need assessments that can get at all the talents our kids have and can encourage them to help transform our world,” said Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School who led the historic boycott of this year’s standardized test.

The “quality assessment movement” has been gaining steam in public schools across the nation ever since the Garfield High School teachers refused to give the annual Measures of Academic Progress test this spring, despite the district superintendent’s threats of suspension. Hagopian, who was named 2013 Secondary Teacher of the Year by the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences, has become an unofficial spokesman for the movement against what he calls “abusive and not scientific measures of knowledge.”

“Students have vomited before a test because they were so stressed out,” Hagopian said. On Thursday, he shared a story of an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles who committed suicide after the Los Angeles Times printed a list of public school teachers ranked by their students’ standardized test scores.

“This is the insanity, the cruelty that standardized testing has gotten to in this culture,” Hagopian said.

The United States should instead look at assessment strategies in other countries like Finland, which “far outranks us in education,” he said. Finland schools administer one “broad-based, general diagnostic” test per year that covers a number of subjects and removes the high-stakes pressure that threatens to deny graduation, fire teachers or close schools.

“I hope that politicians in Hawaii take a look at what happened at Garfield High School and other schools . . . and get out and front the quality assessment movement and demand Maui’s children get the best assessment, rather than wait and force teachers to have to do collective acts of civil disobedience,” Hagopian said.

For the current school year, all of Hawaii’s public school students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 will be given the Hawaii Standards Assessment in Reading and Mathematics, and students in grades 4 and 8 will be given the assessment in science. An end-of-course exam will be given to all high school students enrolled in Biology I, and an EXPLORE test given to all students in grades 8 and 9. An ACT plus Writing test will be given to all students in 11th grade. In sum, dozens of hours will be taken out of classroom time to accommodate the testing schedule this school year.

“Hawaii is a governing state with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium,” said Cara Tanimura, director of the Hawaii Department of Education’s Systems Accountability Office, in a written statement. “Along with other states, we are working to develop next-generation assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards that accurately measure student progress toward college and career readiness.

“The consortium involves educators, researchers, policymakers and community groups in a transparent and consensus-driven process to help all students thrive in a knowledge-driven global economy,” she said.

While the majority of public school students take the tests every year, parents may apply to exempt their children from the test. Last year, 85 public school students in Maui County were exempted from the test. Statewide, there were 263 exemptions.

When asked whether they believe standardized tests are an accurate assessment of what they learned in class, a group of Maui High School students who worked at one of the event’s vendor booths all said no. They also said they didn’t think they gained anything from taking the tests.

“Pretty much, it’s just more stress on the students,” said Cyrell Bueno, a senior at Maui High School. “We already have schoolwork and seven other classes to deal with.”

HSTA Maui Chapter President Lester Kunimitsu said that many Maui teachers, himself included, agreed that using standardized scores as a way to evaluate student and teacher performance was not a good idea, but the state Department of Education “tied it to our contract.”

A $330 million, four-year contract was signed in April after a two-year labor dispute between teachers and the state. The contract implements a new teacher evaluation system being piloted in 81 schools this year. The system evaluates teachers based on student surveys, test scores and classroom observations.

“I get evaluated the same as an English teacher,” said Kunimitsu, who teaches graphic design at Baldwin High School. “I have to teach them argumentative writing (as part of my evaluation). I’m not a writer. This is very unfair for these kids. . . . Kids may come to my class and be able to write one argumentative paper, but if they are not able to produce their own poster or business cards, I didn’t do my job then. That’s why the teachers get mad. It’s just a flawed system.”

Under the newly negotiated contract, first-year teachers’ pay raises are contingent upon positive evaluations, which consider students’ test scores.

“New teachers are often stuck with the worst kids and the smallest classrooms, so we dump all the trouble on you and then we evaluate you and say, ‘Hey, you’re not a very good disciplinarian,’ so we mark you down until you hate your job. They create that environment for us,” Kunimitsu said.

A number of Maui teachers present at the assembly reiterated that standardized test scores are not a fair assessment of teacher performance.

“Personally, I feel teachers should not be evaluated on what they cannot control – poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, parents’ inability to assist with homework because of working multiple jobs or not being able to speak English,” said Justin Hughey, a special education teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary who helped organize this year’s Teacher Institute Day on Maui.

“It’s dehumanizing to reduce people to a number, especially for little kids to go through that system, to say this is your number and I’m going to group you in a class based on that number,” said Cassandra Jones, a drama teacher at Iao Intermediate School and a former language arts teacher, after the assembly. “Gifted teachers are shifting their agendas to test-taking strategies and away from content because they recognize that as one of the key defining areas in which they are evaluated.”

Jones said that just because a class or a school achieves high test scores does not mean students receive a better education, just as a class or school that doesn’t achieve high test scores does not necessarily mean students aren’t learning in the classroom. She advocated for a more community-based effort to define each school’s achievement goals.

“To me, when communities are defining their own goals for their schools and showing their progress, there’s room for far more investment, instead of a Mainland company telling us how to reach higher test scores. That’s not communities defining what they want their kids achieving,” Jones said.

Teachers and staff members are encouraged to provide feedback and concerns about the new pilot Educator Effectiveness System by filling in a form at www.hsta.org. For more information, call 873-7788.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.