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Monday, January 28, 2008

Educators take a stand against time lost to NCLB-inspired testing

AFT.org "NCLB Watch"
December 2007 / January 2008

The pressure to sacrifice teaching and learning to a treadmill of endless, duplicative testing is a common problem in school these days. But it would be tough to find a state harder hit by this burden than Texas, where public schools must navigate separate state and NCLB accountability provisions based on standardized test scores.

The demands have meant that some schools in Texas are spending 130 days a year involved in some aspect of testing-test prep, test administration, test benchmarking and test scoring. Now teachers are fighting back through a campaign called "Reclaim Your Classroom."

Texas AFT is distributing Reclaim Your Classroom Test Watch cards in schools statewide and on the Internet so that teachers, parents and students can track how much time is spent on testing, including standardized tests like the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), which is used for grading schools under NCLB as well as the state's accountability system.

The cards also track the inordinate amount of time spent preparing for and benchmarking tests-and that pressure has only grown since enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, says Ken Zarifis, a middle school language arts teacher from Austin. Zarifis began to track testing hours well before the campaign kickoff in September.

"My students are losing nine weeks a year to testing," he reports. "Ten years ago, testing was taking about a week out of the year. It's appalling."

Zarifis says that NCLB is a big reason for classroom time lost to testing. "Districts feel the pressure, and it just carries down to superintendents, principals, department and into the classroom," he says. "You need to have data in teaching. But now we're just piling data on top of data. Learning is investigating and discovery. It's writing and thinking critically. It's not assessment, which is just the measurement of that activity."

Surveys by Texas AFT reveal that a large majority of teachers across the state say testing is taking away valuable instruction time and hurting other course work, Linda Bridges, president of the affiliate and an AFT vice president, told reporters at the campaign kickoff. More than 93 percent reported the quality of education had dropped in subjects not tested by TAKS.

"More than half of the teachers surveyed told us they're spending more than half of their class time on testing," Bridges says. "That's just insane, and we've got to start putting the pressure on local officials, state lawmakers and Congress to change our testing system now."

Texas AFT will use the information generated by the "Reclaim Your Classroom" campaign to push for test reform at all levels. The union's goals include eliminating the confusion and contradictions between state and federal accountability systems, and giving students credit for the progress they make instead of penalizing them for not meeting accountability standards based on tests that don't accurately measure growth in student achievement. The AFT state affiliate also is pressing policymakers to restore the authority for test preparation to teachers and ensure the appropriate use of standardized testing as a diagnostic tool that helps focus resources where they are needed.

Left unchecked, the mania for testing will continue to warp the school mission, Zarifis warns, and children will be the losers. He recalls one bright student who came up to him at the end of last year, right after the school had administered the TAKS assessment. "She said, ‘Mr. Zarifis, why are we still in school? We're done with the test.' "

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