Public education has gone down the wrong path, according to Cocalico teachers.
Too much standardized testing.
That's what the teachers union told the school board at a public meeting last month. Their statement came in a year when testing backlash has reached new heights across the country, and as Congress works to rewrite the 2001 law that mandates yearly testing.
It also came just weeks before Pennsylvania's Department of Education confirmed that the number of students who scored "proficient" or "advanced" on 2015 PSSA tests dropped significantly from 2014.
The teachers' statement, read to the school board by union president Matt Landis on June 15, said that "an overwhelming majority of the elementary staff believes that standardized testing is harming students."
It continued: "A great many of us do not believe we can in good conscience continue on the current educational path. We are interested in beginning a dialogue. It is our hope that the dialogue will lead to real change."
In a phone interview on Friday, Superintendent Bruce Sensenig said he empathized with the teachers and had concerns about the amount of time spent on testing. But whether the tests are harming students, he said, is "a matter of perspective."
During an interview Friday, Landis cited several reasons teachers believe the tests are harmful. An emphasis on test preparation leads to fewer creative and in-depth projects, selection of teaching materials that aren't developmentally appropriate, a drain on resources and high student stress, he said.
The effects of testing are felt more strongly by elementary staff, said Landis, who teaches at Cocalico Middle School. Pennsylvania public school students take yearly PSSA tests for math and language arts in grades 3 to 8. Students in grade 4 and grade 8 also take science PSSAs. That schedule has led many schools to reduce elementary instructional time on non-tested subjects and other activities over the last decade.
Sensenig agreed that the testing focus in education has become excessive. "The spring gets pretty slow in terms of advancing curriculum. It's mostly test prep," he said. "I wish we could get a balance."
But is that actually harming kids?
School board president Allen Dissinger doesn't think so.
In a phone interview Thursday, he said: "When they have standardized tests, it's usually a few days’ worth of intense testing. It's not harming the students." Dissinger also told teachers at the June meeting that the district's hands are tied by state and federal mandates.
The teachers' public statement came from discussions held at the district's three elementary schools after PSSAs this year, according to Landis. Teachers were asked in formal and informal polls whether they believed testing was harming students and whether they wanted to speak out about it. The responses were a resounding yes.
Landis said the elementary teachers were concerned about the attitude changes they've seen in students since schools have focused more exclusively on test preparation.
"They care deeply about the kids who are in their care, and I think it's just killing them inside to see their kids walking through the doors every day not having that love for learning, not having that mindset that 'I'm smart. I can do this. I can learn,' " Landis said.
Student scores on state tests are used in the state's ranking of public schools and in teacher job evaluations.
Landis said high standards aren't a problem, but punitive reactions are. He said test results should be used to help teachers ask, "What can I do in a creative sense, in a problem-solving sense, in a real-world sense to address those standards?" because "finding another workbook and keeping kids after school isn't going to do it."
Sensenig said that schools should be held accountable to the public, but oft-changing standards frustrate teachers and administrators alike.
PSSA tests were expected to be harder for students this year, as the first time they were fully aligned to Pennsylvania Core standards, which are based on the Common Core.
Sensenig said that change probably raised the level of anxiety about standardized tests among teachers. "You get used to one expectation and then there's a new one."
A WHYY analysis of preliminary data last week found that statewide proficiency rates for 2015 PSSAs dropped on average by 35 percent in math and 9 percent in language arts over 2014. This is the fourth year of declining scores.
A way forward
In their statement to the board, Cocalico teachers said they didn't want "to point fingers or cast blame" over their concerns. "We simply feel compelled to ask that you acknowledge that a serious problem exists, and join us in seeking a new way forward."
Dissinger said Thursday that any further conversations on the issue needed to be with administrators, not the board. Sensenig said he held follow-up conversations with other administrators and is willing to talk with teachers, though the test schedule is in the hands of state and federal lawmakers.
Last week, the U.S. Senate approved an overhaul to the No Child Left Behind Act that would continue annual testing, but give states more flexibility in how they use test scores for assessing schools and teachers. The bill, dubbed the Every Child Achieves Act, must be reconciled with a House version before becoming law.
Landis said he will encourage Cocalico's elementary teachers to meet regularly with Sensenig in the fall. He also said teachers need to talk with the public and contact legislators about standardized testing.
"We can't just be these little test-prep drones. ... We owe it to our profession to start having this dialogue with people in the public."