Standards-based Focus to Schooling Gets a Failing Grade
To Lorrie Matthews, the idea of not allowing her second-graders an afternoon recess is unthinkable.
So when the Highline School District floated the proposal during contract talks last summer, Matthews and other teachers answered with a firm no.
"They were saying we needed to spend more time on the curriculum and we could give up afternoon recess. I was appalled," said Matthews, who teaches at Marvista Elementary.
"Our children need that time to move and socialize. It's not just going to the bathroom and getting a drink. They really need to learn social skills, and they need to make friends."
Educators around the country say such skills are increasingly devalued as schools and districts focus on the results of standardized testing in order to avoid federal sanctions.
President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act provides more money for K-12 education, but also requires that schools meet yearly standards based on states' own assessments or risk penalties as severe as firing school staff and having schools taken over by the state.
Some believe that subjects not on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, such as social studies and physical education, are being eclipsed by the push to have pupils excel at reading and writing -- and, ideally, stay off the feared list of schools considered in need of improvement under the 2-year-old No Child Left Behind law. The result, they say, is less time and resources spent on non-testable areas.
"Virtually all the conversations that go on at school meetings at this point are about how to raise test scores, not how to teach kids more effectively," said Doug Selwyn, a former Seattle Public Schools teacher who is now an instructor at Antioch University. "Staff meetings are dominated by that kind of talk. And professional development is almost exclusively devoted to WASL initiatives."
Proponents of standards-based reform, though, say the movement has increased accountability and provided greater instructional consistency. Tricia Lewicki, a teacher at Beacon Hill Elementary in Seattle, said education in district schools was characterized by a lack of direction and outmoded learning objectives when she started teaching a decade ago.
"You really felt like you were left to whatever whim you had," she said.
But Selwyn and other educators say the focus on standards has evolved to the point that state tests are redefining what constitutes a basic education.
"Schools have gotten the message from Olympia, from D.C., that what you know about the rest of the world, what you know about dealing with others, what you know about the economy ... is not important because it's not tested," he said.
With many states cutting education funding, school districts face tough decisions about where to spend limited resources. Often the first casualties are in subject areas outside of state assessments.
Seattle Public Schools eliminated its social studies and physical education coordinator positions at the end of last school year to help make up a budget shortfall. Other districts have mandated more instructional time for reading and math, forcing teachers to cut back on arts and humanities.
Educators' concerns about the erosion of some subjects are borne out by a 2001 study by the RAND Corp., which found that fourth-grade teachers in Washington state are spending two-thirds of their instructional time on WASL subjects. Most teachers, the study found, spend only one to three hours a week teaching social studies, and experts say that trend is expected to continue.
In Bellevue, elementary teachers have not been required to provide social studies instruction for about five years. Some schools have continued offering social studies classes, but others haven't. The district has since reversed its position in order to meet state standards scheduled for implementation in 2008, and is piloting a new social studies curriculum.
Peter Bogdanoff, Bellevue's curriculum developer for social studies, said the subject was removed from district report cards and made optional to give teachers time to learn new curriculum in other areas.
At a January conference of social studies teachers from around the state, Denee Mattioli, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, said the discipline provides a forum for teaching pupils crucial lessons in cultural studies and global politics.
"What is more basic than citizenship education?" she said. "All of our children need to be fed a full, well-rounded curriculum."
What that curriculum will look like in the future is unclear. Passing the 10th-grade WASL will be a graduation requirement starting in 2008. The test assesses pupils in fourth, seventh and 10th grades on reading, writing and math. A listening section of the test is being eliminated, and science, which was added on a voluntary basis last year, will become required next school year.
The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has backed off from plans to add social studies, physical education and the arts to the WASL. Assessments in those subject areas are being developed, pending a bill currently making its way through the Legislature, but administration and reporting likely will be mandatory, and the tests are not expected to be tied to the graduation requirement.
And although the state is developing new standards for various subjects in grades K through 10 -- including those not on the WASL -- some educators say that time-pressed teachers will continue to focus more on test-related subjects.
Lisa Bond, president of the Seattle Council Parent-Teacher-Student Association, said it will be difficult to meet the new state standards if education funding is not increased. "The tight money is making it very difficult to make sure that kids are getting the instruction they need," she said. "In some places it's happening, but it's happening through incredibly hard work by very dedicated people. You can't expect that to happen everywhere."
Fred Dole, who teaches high school band and choir in Clarkston, in the state's southeast corner, said arts educators are increasingly butting heads with administrators over maintaining instructional time in their classes.
"In every meeting I've been to with my department chairs, there's talk about how can we find more time for reading," said Dole, president of the Washington Music Educators Association. "Our middle school is looking at cutting out choir classes. We've joked here about giving the art teacher only reading classes. It's almost a terrifying place to be."
Dole predicted that non-testable subjects will continue to fall by the wayside. "We're seeing just the beginning of what could be a really big disaster for public school education," he said.
Selwyn says schools are increasingly moving away from the lessons that are most difficult to assess on a test, but which make arts and humanities so important -- teaching pupils about dealing with others, for example, or about how to debate.
Some teachers say the emphasis on standards is making their jobs tougher. In Bellevue, teachers are now required to spend a prescribed amount of time daily on reading and math instruction. For Matthews, that means offering pupils art just once weekly, instead of two or three times. Many of her colleagues, she said, feel pressured and restricted by academic requirements.
"You just feel so rushed. There are so many things a teacher can't offer their classes anymore. The creativity is gone."
Betsy Kluck-Keil, the parent of a sixth-grader at Salmon Bay alternative school in Seattle, said her son's class just finished a districtwide writing assessment after the winter break and is now preparing to write the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which assesses third- and sixth-graders on reading, math and language.
The barrage of tests, she said, overshadows the pleasure of learning and disrupts class initiatives -- for example, a living biography project her son was working on has been put on hold until the upcoming test is over. Other classes, she said, have to postpone field trips or interrupt group projects.
"It breaks the flow of where the curriculum is going from Point A to Point B," she said. "That's a crucial part. It's hard to get those kids motivated back into what they were doing."
Jody Granatir, who teaches at Summit K-12 School in Seattle, is taking a leave of absence after this year and is uncertain whether he'll return. A teacher for more than two decades, Granatir is disillusioned by the focus on educational standards that he says ignore individual learning styles and aptitudes.
He believes No Child Left Behind -- which requires all pupils to reach state standards of proficiency in math, reading and science by 2014 -- is designed to ensure failure in the public school system through the sanctions attached to it.
"To use (the WASL) to deprive someone of graduation or to say whether the school's doing a good job or whether a teacher is doing a good job is insulting, it's horrible," he said. "Having the tests and having the information from those tests is driving how we teach and what we teach. I believe the tail is wagging the dog."
Some educators believe the solution is integrating curriculum to help meet academic needs and ensure that non-testable subjects remain relevant.
Destine Courtier, a physical education teacher at Seattle's Hawthorne Elementary, incorporates math into her classes by having pupils calculate sports scores into percentages, or using dance moves to teach lessons about degrees.
Courtier says the WASL has helped pupils improve critical thinking skills and build other important skills, but she's concerned that the focus on academics is leading to drop in PE time at schools nationwide.
"You're doing great intellectual things but you have a heart attack and die because of your weight -- what's the point?" she said.
Barb Nielsen, principal of Kimball Elementary in Seattle, said although the WASL isn't perfect, it's an improvement over norm-reference tests that compare pupils' performance with a larger group rather than gauging their ability to meet defined standards. Schools can help prepare pupils for the test, she said, by using integrated curriculum provided by the district.
"Everyday things that we do with our kids, if we're using best practices a lot, is WASL preparation," she said.
"When I walk around and see that they're writing in math journals about geometry and by the way, there's all this wonderful art having to do with geometry, it makes me sing."
P-I reporter Deborah Bach can be reached at 206-448-8197 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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