Don’t count the new superintendent of the Payson Unified School District as a big fan of national, standardized testing to decide what’s going on in the classroom.
“When you talk about standardized testing, I was and continue to be, very disturbed by our whole focus on testing,” said Superintendent Stan Rentz. “If we’re looking at one test in the spring to judge our parents and judge our schools and judge our teachers, then we’re getting off track.”
Perhaps those comments reflect the whiplash public schools — and parents — have suffered in a decade-long effort to come up with a national set of tests. Advocates hoped the tests would assure parents their children had mastered key academic skills and enable them to compare their results to other states.
A decade ago an education reform movement embraced a “Common Core” set of standards and tests, hoping to boost schools nationally. The federal department of education offered millions in funding to first develop a common set of academic standards by grade level — and then to help the states implement the tests.
Initially, 45 states said they would take part in the new system, adopt the Common Core standards and tests. Finally, states could measure their results against one another. Advocates said the tests could prevent children from falling behind as they moved through the grades. The tests would also assure employers that a high school degree ensured the same skills whether the student came from California or Arizona. Finally, the new standards stressed critical thinking skills needed in the modern workplace, rather than rote learning.
Well, it didn’t work out as planned.
Only 16 states are still taking part in the full Common Core, federally-backed program, which means they’re using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test to measure results.
Arizona’s not one of them, although the state until this year used a locally tweaked version of the PARCC test called AzMerit, which replaced the home-grown AIMS test, which was a high school graduation test of basic skills.
In the past decade, every Arizona school district in the state went through a time-consuming process of changing the curriculum at each grade level to ensure students could pass the test. Initially terrible results improved steadily as students advanced from grade to grade using the new curriculum and assessment tests leading to the AzMerit results in high school.
The state based its school grading system largely on the AzMerit test results. The state then added financial bonuses for districts with high scores.
Payson schools implemented many changes to improve student scores, including hiring a student achievement director and mentor teachers. In Payson, scores rose steadily as all those changes took hold — especially in the lower grades.
All the while, opposition to a national, high-stakes test grew. So last year, the Arizona Legislature essentially pulled the plug on the effort to ensure Arizona schools adopted some sort of national standard, validated by testing.
Rentz said the overwhelming emphasis on standardized tests has gone too far.
“Have we gone so far that we get so focused on a single test that we forget what education is really about?” asked Rentz, who spent a career as a teacher and superintendent of schools in Georgia before moving to Arizona.
“We’re talking about creating productive citizens that are part of our community. That’s part of the frustration that I feel sometimes. How can we have accountability — but not rely on a single test? You will hear me very rarely talk about testing — good or bad. If we have a good year on testing, I’m not going to get up and brag about it. You have the right culture in place and the test results start taking care of themselves. We need to lose the hyper focus on teaching to the test.”
When the schools focus too much on standardized test, “what is the message we’re sending to the teachers? If your kids do well on the test, you’re a great teacher? Not to me. I can’t look at a group of test scores and say this teacher’s great and this teacher’s not,” said Rentz.
The state has already shifted away from a single, standardized test by letting districts pick the tests they want to use to measure student progress. This will make it hard to compare one district, either locally or nationally. The overhaul of the testing system is still evolving, with the state board of education coming up with a list of acceptable tests. AzMerit remains on the list for now, since so many districts have invested so heavily in the system — including Payson. However, districts could also use the SAT or the ACT.
A survey by Education Week found that use of the national test has faded rapidly in the past three years, dropping from 21 states in 2016 to 15 states and the District of Columbia in 2017.
Payson Director of Student Achievement Brenda Case has recommended the district stick with AzMerit, mostly because the curriculum is now matched to the test. Teachers introduce skills and concepts sequentially at each grade level. An array of tests determines whether students hit their marks as they advance through the system, so teachers can fill in gaps and bring children up to the standard.
About 32 states use a test they designed or bought and three states use a mixture of tests. That included Arizona in 2017, but won’t now.
Some 25 states require all students to take the SAT or ACT, which doesn’t include Arizona. About 13 states have some high school graduation test or portfolio. That included Arizona, but won’t for much longer.
Some longtime educators welcome the move to put less stress on academic testing and standardized curriculum.
Jim Quinlan, a former Payson School Board member and an English teacher with 44 years of experience, said the heavy stress on testing leached the joy out of teaching.
“They’ve taken so much away from the teacher being the expert in the classroom. The high-stakes testing mode we’ve been in, it’s taken the fun out of teaching in school.”
His wife, Barb Quinlan, who recently retired after a decade of teaching in Payson elementary schools, agreed. “Let the teacher do what they’re trained to do.”
Rentz said the schools should ensure students have basic academic skills, but the job they face is much broader — including getting children ready to function in society.
“What I’ve found is that so many things that you and I learned at home — life skills — preparing a meal, changing a tire, cleaning the house — and then you get into dealing with credit and job interviews — so many of those things are not being taught at home anymore.”
He acknowledges it’s hard to find that balance between ensuring students have those core academic skills and also develop their gifts.
“We’re going to impact kids,” he said. “We just have to decide how we’re going to impact them. Is it going to be positive? Is it going to be negative? We can change the life of a child. If that’s not enough passion for you — then you’re in the wrong business.”