Tennessee's heavy use of standardized tests sparks hard questions from parents, educators

7:23 AM, Aug 27, 2013   |    comments
Students in a math class at Neely's Bend Middle School in Madison prepare for upcoming TCAP tests. / Jeanne Reasonover / File / The Tennessean
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Principal Virgina Gunn's "data room" is jam-packed with test results that she uses to create custom lesson plans for every child in her troubled school.

It's hard to argue with her strategy, since students at her Margaret Allen Middle School made so much progress last year that the school landed on the state's list of top achievers.

But a growing number of Tennessee parents are joining their counterparts in other states in questioning the heavy use of standardized testing that forms the basis of so many education decisions.

"It's a steady drumbeat," said Metro Nashville school board member Amy Frogge. Parent groups are springing up in Knox and Williamson counties, and Frogge believes other areas are not far behind.

"My personal philosophy is there's too much testing," said Phillip Wallace, director of Stewart County schools. "It's gotten out of hand. We're testing our children to death. It should be diagnostic, like going to the pediatrician."

Frogge and fellow board member Jill Speering have heard so many complaints that Speering recently asked Metro staff members to investigate how many tests are given and how much time is spent preparing for those tests. No timetable has been set for the information to be presented to the board.

But Speering said, "The conversation about high-stakes tests has only begun."

Scores spark gains

Gunn said she is getting no parent complaints, and she thinks that is because she gets impressive results by using test scores to drive student achievement.

In her "data room," whiteboards with the name of every student line the walls. Each student's test results are posted, along with an individual improvement plan for each child. Only educators have access to the room so that student privacy is protected.

During the last school year, Margaret Allen students improved their scores in every tested subject on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program. That kind of success is new for Margaret Allen, which is included on Metro's iZone list of schools performing so poorly they have received grants to extend both the school day and the school year.

"It's how the data is used, and that's the most important piece," Gunn said. "Testing is very necessary to see how we compare and to see how we are growing."

But she acknowledges that educators should choose among the available tests and not try to give them all. Gunn uses fewer than 10 standardized tests a year, she said.

Frogge's own third-grade child at Gower Elementary was given more than 20 standardized tests last year, Frogge told her board colleagues recently.

At issue are many optional tests permitted by the Metro district. Only district-wide tests appear on the system's testing calendar.

Frogge thinks so many tests are given that teachers don't have time to analyze the information and use it the way Gunn does to drive individual instruction.

New importance

Standardized testing has been a part of the school year for as far back as most can remember, but it took on a new level of importance in 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act was adopted. The act required students to pass tests to move from one grade to another or graduate from high school.

Another layer of importance recently was placed on testing in Tennessee and several other states when they received federal waivers from the act. The waivers were granted in return for greater accountability that requires teacher evaluations to be based in part on student test scores.

The increased emphasis on testing is causing some parents to align themselves with a national "opt-out" movement.

"We don't want to upset teachers or administrators, but we have to fight for what is right for our children," said Metro Nashville public school parent Jennifer Smith. "We're standing up and saying, 'Enough is enough.' "

As the unofficial leader of the movement in Tennessee, Smith has followers on her Facebook page, "Stop the TN Testing Madness," from all over the state. This year, Smith warned teachers that she will refuse some testing for her child.

The Metro system has no tally of the number of parents who have refused testing, said spokesman Joe Bass. He knows of only a few cases.

The system has no policy on how to handle test refusals and is looking for guidance from the state Department of Education, he added. So far, Metro officials have honored parents' requests.

The department's attorney said parents may not refuse the TCAP for their children because it is mandated by state law, spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said. However, she couldn't say what the consequences for parent or child would be.

Other assessments not mandated by the state would fall under each district's authority, she said.

Students stressed

Nashville parents are beginning to worry about the amount of stress put on their children, said school board member Speering, a retired teacher who taught for 35 years.

"These little ones, they get so nervous during the test," Speering said. "They love their teacher and they know it will help their teacher. I've heard so many horror stories about children throwing up and urinating on themselves."

The complaints already spurred the elimination of one standardized test for kindergarten through second grade in Metro schools. The SAT-10, or Stanford Achievement Test, was used for the younger children for the first time during the last school year. Complaints made administrators reconsider the move, and officials announced this month that Metro schools will not use the SAT-10 this year for kids so young.

The TCAP exams begin in third grade.

Speering recently asked board colleagues to adopt a resolution similar to one circulated nationally by groups who question the use of so much testing, but her attempt was unsuccessful.

The discussion, however, prompted the request for staff to investigate.

Maria Giordano contributed to this report.

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