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Must testing in the schools shape the education system?

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Must testing in the schools shape the education system?

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By Debbie Bruell

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Sopris Sun Correspondent

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At the same time that discontent with U.S. educational policy is mounting, our local school district is preparing for a visioning process for the community to explore and define what we want locally for the education of our children. The Sopris Sun is running a series of articles that addresses some of the key concepts and issues at the center of national and local discussions about educational reform. This article is the fourth and final article in that series.

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From Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation to Obama’s Race to the Top grant program, standardized testing persists as the primary measure of a school’s success and the focus of our nation’s education policies. Punishing or rewarding schools based on their test scores continues to be our government’s key strategy for attempting to improve schools.

This narrow focus on testing has led to some negative consequences for many of our nation’s children. For example, raising test scores tends to become the driving force behind instruction at the expense of goals such as engaging children’s natural sense of curiosity, and important elements of children’s education tend to fall by the wayside simply because they’re not tested on standardized tests (such as social-emotional development, creativity, teamwork skills).

Is it possible to avoid the negative consequences often associated with high stakes standardized testing? While testing dominates our education policies, does it have to shape the kind of education we give to our children here in Carbondale?

Re-1 administrators are quick to say it does not. They believe our schools are open to possibilities in spite of federal mandates relating to testing. School Board President Matt Hamilton told The Sopris Sun that there are examples across the country of innovative and inspiring public schools which are thriving in spite of current educational policies. 

Re-1’s Chief Academic Officer Rob Stein is optimistic that once the community goes through the process of identifying what it is we want and need for the children of our community, we will find models of other public schools who are successfully achieving similar kinds of outcomes. 

What if we create educational programs that truly engage and inspire students, and our test scores go down? Re-1 administrators are confident that we won’t be faced with this kind of dilemma. Instruction that truly engages, challenges and inspires our students, Re-1 administrators say, is the best way to achieve high test scores.

Engaging students

Rick Holt, who had been Carbondale Middle School’s principal since 2008, was hired last spring for a newly created district position: Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. Given people’s association of the term “assessment” with standardized testing, the creation of this position was met with some criticism from parents.

According to Holt, the idea that his position is focused on analyzing test scores is a misconception. Instead, Holt said, his primary goal is to ensure that our schools are providing high-level, rich and engaging learning experiences for all of our students. 

More specifically, Holt explained, the district is working to incorporate more project-based learning, interdisciplinary learning, learning that is connected to students’ interests and to the world outside the classroom, and to focus on 21st century learning skills (such as critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration and creativity). According to Holt, this approach to learning is not only what’s best for kids, it’s also the instructional approach which will result in the highest test scores. 

“What you want to avoid,” Holt explained, “is focusing the learning experience on training kids to do well on the tests.”

Holt will be overseeing the four staff members of the Instructional Support Team. He outlined three key tasks that this team will undertake in order to reach their goal of creating rich and engaging learning experiences throughout the district:

• Communicating with teachers about the importance of project-based, interdisciplinary, authentic learning experiences that focus on 21st century learning skills and how this approach can result in better test scores than “teaching to the test.”  Holt noted that the communication effort to teachers will also include addressing teachers’ fears that if their students score poorly on standardized tests it will put the teacher’s job at risk. According to Holt, that fear is based on misperceptions of the potential impact of the new teacher evaluation legislation, SB 191.

• Provide the professional development that teachers need in order to implement this type of instruction effectively. Recent surveys of Re-1 teachers have found that teachers have a strong desire for more in-depth and consistent professional development.

• Find ways to provide teachers with the time they need to provide this type of instruction effectively. Holt told The Sun that one of his goals is to “reduce the amount of time that teachers have to engage with the gradebook (i.e., recording assessment scores) and increase the time that teachers have to engage with kids.” The district has decreased the number of items that teachers are required to report on for each student, Holt explained. His team is working on finding ways to give some teachers more planning time as well. 

Optimistic

As skeptics point out about the new Common Core standards, are our administrators just “saying all the right things” or is real change possible?  

Hamilton insists that the district’s commitment to making positive changes is not just empty words. He points to the district’s decision to transform Glenwood Springs Elementary School into an Expeditionary Learning (EL) school starting this fall. 

By committing to the EL conversion process at GSES, the district has not only committed significant resources toward an intense teacher-training process, it has also committed to identifying non-essential tasks that can be taken off of teachers’ plates so that teachers have sufficient time to plan and implement in-depth learning projects. 

Hamilton explains that the district is embarking on the visioning process with the idea that “the canvas is blank” and the district is eager to build a new vision for our schools together with the community. “Everything is on the table,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton clearly has high hopes for the changes that can result from the visioning process. “Schools should be about capturing a child’s imagination,” he said. “When your child comes home from school is he excited to tell you about what he learned that day? Is he excited to go back and learn more tomorrow?” 

Similarly, Hamilton said, we need to be asking teachers, “At the end of each day do you feel like your creativity has been captured and you’ve been able to make the most of your energy and passion for the kids?”

Hamilton acknowledges that public schools have a tendency to jump around to new initiatives, trying new approaches every couple of years. However, he said the district is committed to establishing a new vision and strategies that it will commit to for the next  5 to 10 years. “If the community wants input into that vision,” Hamilton said, “now is their chance.”

Administrators and board members are quick to note that the visioning process would not have been possible if voters had not passed the mill levy ballot question in 2011. “We’re blessed to be in this situation and we ought to take advantage of it,” Hamilton said.

The district’s visioning process will kick off with community meetings in Carbondale, Glenwood and Basalt from mid-September to mid-October. The exact times and locations will be announced soon on the district’s website: www.rfsd.k12.co.us.

Next Steps:

For exact times and locations for the Re-1 

visioning process meetings, go to www.rfsd.k12.co.us.

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