‘Too much teaching to the test,’ they complain

Debbie Pfeiffer Trunnell, Staff Writer
Posted: 04/10/2010 07:11:33 AM PDT

As early as kindergarten, California teachers spend as much as 40 minutes to an hour a day doing assessments of their small charges in preparation for the years of testing to come.

By second grade, much of the school year is devoted to readying students for a whole week of testing in English-language arts and math, and the momentum only builds through 11th grade.

The focus on reaching the high standards of the No Child Left Behind Act means educators spend hours every day sharing test-taking skills with students and teaching math and English, with only minutes left in the day to teach other subjects.

“When you look at the philosophy of teaching the whole child, you have to expose the children to all possibilities,” said Gerald Kasinski, the former principal at San Bernardino’s Davidson Elementary School. “Focusing on No Child Left Behind means a teacher’s time is used to help students who struggle the most at detriment to others.”

President Bush signed No Child Left Behind into law in January of 2002.

The legislation fundamentally changed teaching and education in U.S. schools by requiring annual testing of school children and adequate yearly progress for every subgroup of students.

The results of the tests, known as the Standardized Testing and Reporting program, or STAR, in California, and the Academic Performance Index are components the state uses for measuring adequate yearly progress.

In a recently released study that looked at the law by UC Riverside sociology professor Steven Brint and Patrick Guggino, an English teacher at Charter Oak High School in Covina, the researchers surveyed more than 740 of California’s most accomplished teachers to assess its effectiveness. The study was called “Does the No Child Left Behind Act Help or Hinder K-12 Education?”

Although few teachers interviewed for the study were enthusiastic supporters, some credited the act with increasing focus on core skills, encouraging planning and organization of lessons and creating higher expectations for students’ performances.

However, 84 percent of the teachers reported unfavorable attitudes toward the act.

Among the criticisms were concerns about individualized student learning and declining creativity in the classroom, researchers said.

“What we found is although it helped them focus on core skills, there was too much teaching to the test and a flawed measurement tool, because the testing doesn’t give a complete picture of who the child is and what the child knows,” Guggino said.

Frank Wells, spokesman for the California Teachers Association, believes teachers are dealing with a less rounded curriculum as a result of No Child Left Behind.

“The nearer you get to the testing dates, you are literally prepping the kids on how to take the test, such as strategies and pacing, all of that stuff,” he said. “Testing has become such an end to itself, especially with NCLB sanctions, that teachers are very frustrated.”

Jan Thornhill, president of the Associated Chaffey Teachers, said the most common complaint she hears is educators don’t find teaching fun anymore because of time constraints.

“The rewarding part of teaching is not the test stuff, it’s seeing the light come on, and teachers don’t have time to pay attention to that anymore,” she said.

In the San Bernardino City Unified School District, teachers are excited at the start of the school year and stressed out at the end because of testing, said Rebecca Harper, president of the San Bernardino Teachers Association.

“It is definitely taking a toll. I hear that all the time,” she said. “It starts with one-on-one assessment in kindergarten and by the first grade they are already giving a benchmark math test.”

Teachers handle the demands in different ways.

Sandra McClanahan, a proponent of No Child Left Behind, who teaches second grade at Burbank Elementary in San Bernardino, said she and other teachers deal with the stress by being creative.

`We will incorporate art, music and PE into what we do at test time and even sing chants to get them pepped up,” she said. “And we start doing test preparation in August, so it’s nothing new by the spring.”

As for testing taking away from instruction time, she believes teachers would be teaching to required standards even without the tests.

But Bobbie Perong, a fourth-grade teacher at Arrowhead Elementary in San Bernardino, said No Child left Behind has not lived up to her early expectations.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it would be about putting programs in place as an intervention for needy students,” she said. “But basically it has altered everything I do.

“Every time I do a lesson plan I am keeping the testing in mind, and I spend four hours out of a six hour day focused on reading and math.”

What worries the dedicated teacher the most is the impact all the testing has on her students.

“It’s not about the bottom line, it’s about our kids. They come to school on test days throwing up and with stomach aches, and that stresses me out more than anything,” she said.

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