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Education: Surveys scrutinize time students spend taking tests

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Eighth-graders in South Carolina spend up to eight hours a year taking standardized tests, according to a recent survey by the state Education Oversight Committee. On top of that, students at Waccamaw Middle School spend another 18 hours in assessments. If they are taking high-school level English and math, they spend another two hours on state-mandated end-of-course exams.

“One of the complaints in the community is that we’re spending too much time teaching to the test,” said Jim Dumm, chairman of the Georgetown County School Board. He asked the district to survey schools about the time spent testing. That coincided with the survey from the Education Oversight Committee, a panel of educators, business people and elected officials created in 1998 to monitor progress in the state’s schools.

The state survey was more precise than the district’s, where some schools only listed tests given since the start of the year. Dumm said he hopes to get additional information about the time county students spend on state-mandated tests and how much time they spend on assessments required by the district. “It’s important to understand what we’re doing,” he said.

The district survey also asked schools to list activities such as assemblies and field trips that take time out of the school day. “One of the more frequent complaints and concerns from teachers is the amount of time students are taken out of the classroom,” Dumm said.

Much of that concern comes from proposals to use student test data as a measure of teacher performance. That’s likely to change with the adoption of a new federal education law that shifts many decisions about testing back to the states. After the passage of the law last month, the state superintendent of education, Molly Spearman, proposed South Carolina drop test scores from the evaluations.

Patti Hammel, the director of student performance for Georgetown County Schools, said Spearman is “certainly mindful” of the concerns over testing. A concern of Hammel’s that was borne out in the state testing survey is that some results aren’t provided to teachers to help them improve learning. “Teachers indicate that they want to eliminate the redundancies in assessments, which would increase the amount of time they would have for instruction,” according to the state survey. “They also want the results of assessments to be more informative.”

The state has seven different assessments starting with 30-minute readiness tests given to pre-kindergarten students. Eighth-graders are at the peak of the test-taking schedule with standardized tests in English, math, science and social studies plus the potential end-of-course exams for honors students. One of the tests Georgetown County gives helps identify those honors students. Hammel said it’s required in the second grade, but the district gives it more often to help ensure minority students have the chance to take “gifted and talented” classes.

Students in grades three through eight also take Measures of Academic Progress tests up to three times a year to make sure they’re on track for the standardized tests. They also take assessments for the state’s “student learning objectives.”

Pressed by Dumm about whether the district staff also hears complaints about testing from parents and teachers, Hammel said “we’ve heard that in some instances.”

The state survey also addressed the issue of “teaching to the test” by asking how much time teachers spend prepping for the standardized tests. About a third said they spent a week or less, but nearly a quarter said they spent four weeks on test prep.

The state survey also included hundreds of comments from teachers. One high school teacher quoted a former colleague: “You don’t make a pig fat by weighing the pig; you make a pig fat by feeding it.”

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