CHELTENHAM >> Educational concerns took center stage as Northwest Philadelphia voices testified at a public hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) recently.
Scholars, parents and even a couple of high school students shared their concerns about the act’s testing and other requirements. The hearing, held at Arcadia University’s Common Great Room, 450 S. Easton Road in Glenside, Monday, Feb. 20, lasted for more than two hours.
ESSA was signed into law by former President Barack Obama Dec. 10, 2015. The measure replaces No Child Left Behind and is scheduled to go into full effect starting with the 2017-18 school year. The commonwealth’s education department is currently determining the Pennsylvania requirements.
The Feb. 20 hearing addressed testing and other requirements and was open to the public.
The hearing was hosted by state Sens. Art Haywood, D-4, and Andy Dinniman, D-19, who is also the minority chairman of the State Education Committee. The first panel included professors of education Mary Williams, of La Salle University, John Groves, of Arcadia University, and Debra Chardonna, of Chestnut Hill College. There was testimony regarding both student assessments and the teacher certification process.
“This is not what we need for teachers in Pennsylvania,” Williams said.
She pointed out the certification process was expensive. She also shared several points why she felt that the assessment process could keep good teachers from being able to obtain certification. She, along with Groves, said she felt the standardized testing of students should not be punitive against teachers.
Groves said it would be best to have “evaluation testing” to students rather than assessments. He pointed to the many reasons why showing what the students knows and needs to learn is far more valuable than testing to assess students’ abilities or teaching prowess.
“The punitive nature of assessments produces more stress and … teaching to the tests,” Groves said.
Chardonna concurred, pointing out that when evaluating students, other variables must be taken into account. Among the things she listed were whether the children’s native language is English, the student’s learning styles, the environment they are coming from and class size.
She stressed quality learning occurs when teachers have the needed resources in smaller classrooms.
“The optimal class size is 15, and many of our public school classes have 33 students,” she said.
The second panel featured students Max Lempert from Cheltenham High School in Wyncote and Daja Douglas from Central High School, an academic magnet high school in Philadelphia. Lempert stressed students are overloaded with mandatory standardized testing in addition to taking SAT and ACT exams for college admission.
“It’s not just we have to show proficiency,” Lempert said. “We are then compared to the testing in the schools in Upper Dublin, Radnor and Lower Merion. They keep comparing the scores and that does not show growth.”
Douglas outlined that with the Keystone examinations, there is a period during the school year where students are just taking back-to-back tests. She said they are preparing for and taking SATs while taking Keystone examinations and other tests in addition to regular classroom examinations. She also pointed out the results of the standardized tests come back the following school year and does not benefit the students who actually took them.
Both high school students stressed the high anxiety level caused by all these tests, especially for student who are great test takers. Douglas shared the story of a student who actually committed suicide after “being overwhelmed by performance anxiety,” while Lempert said by the time students get to the last round of tests, they do not care about the results.
“This is ridiculous to do this to us in school,” he said.
On the third panel, parents Robin Roberts, Jennifer Jones and Nikki Kane shared the intense test scheduling that takes place in the spring of each year. All concurred there is little learning going on during the five to six weeks of testing for students as young as third grade.
Jones listed the mandatory testing for a Philadelphia School District fifth-grader at C. W. Henry Elementary School. Three times a year they are tested for reading fluency totaling two hours.
In March, they will be taking reading exams individually, there are benchmark assessments in reading and mathematics three times a year that are two hours each and then the PSSA examines are given for 10 hours over eight days during the spring. This is in addition to weekly or bimonthly spelling tests, math tests and quizzes, reading tests, social studies tests and science tests.
Roberts explained she is among the parents who have “opted out” of her three children taking the standardized tests. At one time, some Philadelphia School District teachers told her not to send her children to school at all. So, she or her husband took turns providing educational days for their children at home or by taking trip excursions to libraries and museums.
“I have problems with the experimentation data mind biometrics [during testing],” said Roberts, who has several advanced degrees including a doctorate.
She pointed out students are using electronic devices where their fingerprints are being recorded, with cameras monitoring their eye gazes, facial recognition and eye scanning. She questioned why they were using “an inordinate amount” of computer technology.