Washington County school board erases standardized tests for young students

After an onslaught by parents, teachers and school board members at a public meeting last week, the SAT-10 assessment will no longer be administered to Kindergarten, first- and second-grade students in the Washington County school system.

A split 5-4 vote of the board on July 2 abolished the standardized tests next school year, driven by claims that the high-stakes testing can produce detrimental psychological effects on young students and the time required to prepare students for the assessment eats away at instructional time.

“I move that we do away with the SAT-10 for the 2015-16 school year until we see where the state’s going to be,” school board member David Hammond said. “We know the students are going to have to deal with testing eventually, but I’m one of those people who would like to let them stay as young and live as stress-free for as long as they can.”

Before the school board’s unscheduled consideration of the annual test, offered as optional by the state’s Department of Education, parent Kerri Aistrop told members during the public forum her 6-year-old was so upset while taking the test this year that he vomited.

“All I ask is that when you’re making a decision about it, is that you consider if the psychological effects are worth getting a grade for a teacher,” Aistrop said. “Is this test really relevant for a 5- or 6-year-old?”

The SAT-10, or the Stanford Achievement Test Series, 10th edition, is a multiple-choice test sold by Pearson, a global supplier of testing services and textbooks.

The reading and math assessments previously given to Kindergarten, first- and second-graders, paid for by state, were scored each year by the company and compared to the performance of students across the nation. The scores were then used by the district not as a part of the students’ grades, but to evaluate the effectiveness of its teachers, part of the teacher accountability mandates put in place by state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and maintained by his successor, Candice McQueen.

Though vocal teachers and their local union representatives say the national tests don’t match well with Tennessee’s newly implemented curriculum, Washington County Schools administrators maintain that the tests were useful.

“Without them, there will not be individual accountability for teachers in the first through third grades,” Karla Kyte, the district’s director of elementary education, said Wednesday. “Now, for accountability scores, teachers in Kindergarten through third grades will all essentially receive a score that is the average of the scores of the teachers in the fourth through eights grades at their schools.”

With no measure of teacher effectiveness in those grades, teachers and administrators won’t be able to objectively measure how well certain education practices work, which could lead to decreases in student proficiency in basic subjects, Kyte said. The testing, which she said only produced detrimental stress in a couple of reported cases in the district, also helped to familiarize students with the format of the tests they are required to take in grades 3 through 8.

“We’re trying to do the best we can within the budget we’re provided,” Kyte said. “Our intent was to not be part of the 30 percent of students who scored ’below proficient’ in reading on national tests.”

Locally, however, Washington County was one of the few school districts administering the SAT-10 test to students, a fact noted by the opponents of the test at the school board’s meeting.

Districts in Johnson City, Elizabethton, Kingsport and Sullivan and Carter counties choose to not use the test, with most administrators saying it’s not appropriate for students at those developmental levels.

“As a district we discussed it and didn’t feel like it was appropriate, so we made the decision that we did not want to administer it,” Andy True, Kingsport City Schools’ chief information officer. said. “We already work with children at various ages in other ways, and we didn’t feel like adding another test to that would be useful.”

Cindy Lawson, supervisor for attendance and testing for Johnson City Schools, voiced similar reasons about her district’s choice to not administer the SAT-10.

“It’s an elective test that we don’t feel is developmentally appropriate to test those students in that manner,” she said. “It’s also nationally-normed, which means it doesn’t fit our current set of standards.”

With the test abolished for Washington County students next year, Kyte said administrators were already searching for other ways to ensure accurate evaluations of teachers in the lower grades.

“We’re in this transition going to a more difficult curriculum and we’re going to experience transitional changes in that process,” she said. “We’re going to have to put safeguards in place now that we’ve lost this resource of information about student growth.”

Joining Hammond in the vote to abolish the test were school board members Phillip McLain, Jack Leonard, Annette Buchanan and Keith Ervin. Unsuccessfully voting to keep it was Clarence Mabe, Mary Lo Silvers, Mike Masters and Chairman Todd Ganger.

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