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Westside charter principal: 'Fatigue... frustration' resulting from new state testing regimen

       Editor's note: Nikki Myers is the principal of Academy for Advanced & Creative Learning (AcademyACL), a District 11 charter school at 2510 N. Chestnut St. Below is a copy of a letter she recently sent to the State Board of Education and to the Education Committee members in both the House and Senate of the Colorado Legislature.
       The letter includes the following terms:
       - "CMAS" - an acronym for Colorado Measures of Academic Success, the name of the state-mandated testing for secondary schools. This testing, all done on computers now, has been expanded this year from one "window" of time in the spring semester to three.
       - “PARCC” - an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, defining what's in the CMAS tests. Colorado is among 13 states in the nation using PARCC, which follows "Common Core" standards.
       - "PearsonAccess" - the PARCC vendor, which provides the "portal" for the CMAS testing.
       Because the testing expansion was a state decision, Myers said in response to a question from the Westside Pioneer, she is hopeful that a bill at the Statehouse could result in a reasonable solution.

       Dear State Board of Education, and Senator Joshi, Senator Hill, Senator Johnston, Senator Marble, Senator Merrifeld, Senator Todd, Senator Kerr, Senator Woods, Senator Neville, Senator Holbert, Representative Buckner, Representative Pettersen, Representative Everett, Representative Lundeen, Representative Windholz, Representative Fields, Representative Moreno, Representative Garnett, Representative Priola, Representative Wilson -
       Thank you for the hard work that you do on behalf of our state. I appreciate the complexities of your job and the amount of feedback
Academy ACL Principal Nikki Myers reads out loud to a group of attendees during a readathon at the school in 2013.
Westside Pioneer file photo
that you receive from all sides concerning issues that deeply affect our state and in particular, our future.
       I am the principal of a K-8 charter school in Colorado Springs that specializes in providing support and flexibility for gifted educational needs, including students who work several levels above their grade in all subjects, students who might be verbally gifted with high vocabulary and have severe dyslexia, students who are advanced in math but struggle to get their thoughts onto paper, students who are typical learners who want to enjoy school and meet their goals, and students who are creatively gifted with amazing artwork and theatrical skill.
       I need to let you know some of the specific impacts that are happening right now in my building due to three state testing windows instead of one. Setting aside larger issues of philosophy around testing, what tests to use, what is authentic and meaningful data, the timing of the results, et cetera, there are several serious impacts that three testing windows are having on our students and their education.
       I would like to provide an overview, followed by specific examples. The three testing windows are disrupting our specials classes, fatiguing students, fatiguing staff, upsetting the entire building's schedule for every single kindergarten through eighth grade class, upsetting facility space in the whole building, creating multiple scheduling conflicts, preventing a variety of very important work tasks from being done, and creating stomachaches, headaches, exhaustion after a session, difficulty sleeping, and other psychosomatic symptoms in several students.
       Here are specific examples.
       - Specials. The specials teachers are being called in to proctor testing sessions; it's all-hands-on-deck everywhere. Their schedules have been upended frequently. Every year we do a huge play (Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, the Odyssey, the Diary of Anne Frank) with our seventh and eighth grade students. This year, it's Macbeth. We almost had to cancel Macbeth, because now PARCC EOY is scheduled during our theater rehearsal time. To avoid this, we had to change the testing schedule to make younger students test later in the day so that older students could still have rehearsal time, and even so, we're worried about the resulting quality and depth for the students and the audience.
       - Depth in core classes. Our specials teachers co-teach with our core teachers to show the integration of their subjects, such as the connections between art and math. Due to the fact that the CMAS platform for science and history failed last week and pushed last week's testing calendar into this week, the integration time scheduled for the classes this week had to be canceled. We're not sure when or where to reschedule those classes, since we start PARCC EOY next week and other classes were already scheduled to work around that time.
       - Frustration. The research is strong that the best learning takes place when the brain is relaxed and intrigued. Right now, the kids' brains are frustrated. We have done all we can to get them pumped up and excited to earn participation points, to celebrate SuperGoal XV as a chance to give them something fun out of this, with funny music on the intercom, cheers for their participation, etc. The novelty has worn off. They are troopers, but they are visibly tired and worn out, walking into their rooms to see that yes, indeed, the computers are lined up for them to test again. Teachers are faking smiles like crazy to try to give their students some kind of joy in the situation. With one window like last year, we could push hard and get it done and get back to normal, exciting learning. This second window and now a third one next week is making a serious impact on our students' view of school. My staff, all of them, are tired and fatigued, and we still have until May 29 to be in school. Normally this would be a celebration of work, finishing up chapter reviews, setting their goals for next year, and using formative assessments to identify their areas to work on over the summer. Instead, every staff member including our custodian, office manager, both office assistants and myself are running around trying to figure out which test is next, where we ourselves will be proctoring a session, etc.
       - Security stress. These tests have the security of a secret spy mission. Staff members feel like they have invisible handcuffs attaching their bucket of secret seal codes and special test scratch paper to their wrists. They take their materials into the bathroom with them if no one is around who can sign the chain of command forms to make sure the protocols are all secure. With one testing window, well, it is what it is. The stress of that multiplied by three, including three separate times to hear the same presentation of how security needs to occur and then obtain signatures from all staff members three times to make sure they're aware… this is not a good use of taxpayer money or staff energy.
       - Scheduling. We follow educational best practice to move students into multi-age classes to get them the advanced work, the on-level work, and the remedial work that they need. However, three different testing windows mean three different times where students cannot attend their regular multi-age class because certain grade levels are missing or that teacher is proctoring. Not only should the time for individual grade levels be counted as lost instructional time, but the impact on all the other grades when their regular instructional time has to be changed should be counted, too. The length of the testing sessions creates a tightness in the schedule that has even made it difficult for lunch scheduling, particularly when the hallways have to be library-quiet to get students in and out of the hot lunch line.
       - Facility space. Testing sessions impact every room of the building, including escorting students to the bathroom because they're not allowed to walk alone if they're in a testing session. We have to use the teacher's lounge, a tiny conference room, a theater office, my principal's office, the business manager's office, the storeroom in the office, the dean's office (which happens to be on the other side of a staff bathroom that can't be used because the door slamming distracts the student testing on the other side of the wall), and any other space we can work out to have a spot for all the kids at various grade levels to test. We don't have enough equipment, space, staff, and bandwidth to test everyone at the same time and get the regular day back to normal.
       - Staff coverage and platform failure. Right now as I'm typing, my office assistant came to tell me that she's going to go take over proctoring for a teacher because there's a student in one room who still needs time to test because the testing platform kicked him out NINE times and he couldn't finish at the same time as everyone else, and the teacher who was proctoring needs to go outside to cover outside duty and then continue his teaching schedule. We've just been informed that PearsonAccess is on status yellow and working slowly at this time. The Pearson notification email says "students will not be impacted."
       - Work affected. Due to the impact on facilities and staff coverage, there are multiple other tasks that have to be sidelined during the three testing windows, with a scramble to get caught up on work in between. If you can picture a busy school office that is doing work to wrap up this year, conduct enrollment for next year, hiring procedures for next year, and the typical day-to-day work of supporting students who get sick, have appointments, need updated attendance documents, et cetera, then also please picture that work not being able to be done because multiple office staff are proctoring a session or making sure the technology is working for everyone. As principal, I may be proctoring a session, manning the offices, and often not able to use my own office because someone needs it for students to test. It's hard to do other work such as teacher observations when all of their schedules are changed, and when office staff is booked with testing and I'm needed to answer phones. I've actually been trying to type this letter to you for a week now, in between other things affected by testing that impact my schedule. We had to reschedule a tour group for this week that was considering enrollment in the school, because last week's testing schedule didn't work and now we're testing this week, too, and they can't be in the building.
       Work on data analysis is being impacted. We have students currently taking NWEA MAP tests in and around state test schedules because for one, students actually like those because they immediately know their score and their growth at the end of the test, and two, it actually enables us to have formative information for next year's learning groups and goal-setting in the fall. However, we're going to be crunched to be able to analyze that data, because we'll be in the middle of the third PARCC window when we would normally be working on that data.
       - Physical stress. We have done everything we can to have a positive, upbeat spin for our kids on these three testing windows. Despite that, we have kids with anxiety who show up at the office with stomachaches, headaches, and other psychosomatic symptoms due to stress and worry over state tests where the rooms have to be so quiet for 80 minutes that you can hear a pin drop. This makes it hard to tell who's actually sick with something and who just needs some comfort. One of our students opted out on the last testing window because he tried three sessions in a row and was kicked out of the sessions so many times that his anxiety spiked and his parents requested the opt- out. Students are also more irritable with each other, with their families at home, and when they have extracurricular events like volleyball, cheerleading, drama, choir, and piano that are now affected over multiple weeks. Students also report not concentrating as much as they could be in other classes when they know they have a test session coming up later that day.
       Here is a quote from one of our eighth graders: "When I test, I put everything into it. I know that it can set a baseline for high school for me next year. When I get home, I'm exhausted and I don't have the energy to work on other school projects and core classes that I still need to do."
       When we have one testing window, it's relatively easy for teachers to suspend projects and other student-work so that we can get the testing accomplished and move on. However, multiple testing windows mean we cannot stop all other assignments that are needed to continue students' learning.
       With all of these factors, state testing data is not going to be a valid reflection of my teachers' work this year. I'm going to predict that the state data we receive in the fall is going to contain a few general trends that we already knew we wanted to work on schoolwide, and several students will have bizarre scores (that depress our overall averages) because of a variety of factors already listed, including stress and platform failure that caused more stress. My teachers will have much more usable data from student work samples and from NWEA MAP growth data than we will from state testing data.
       An Internet search shows that initial medical board certification takes ten hours (counting up to 100 minutes of break time); cardiovascular disease board certification takes fourteen hours. Colorado bar tests reportedly take twelve hours. A recent Denver Post article showed that we're giving state tests an average of eleven hours, and our seventh and eighth graders are being tested fourteen to fifteen hours of actual seat time in session; this does not include time for setting up the tests, so additional learning time is affected for setup and directions, too.
       Our school appreciates the work that you, our senators and representatives, are doing to navigate through these issues and enable excellent education for our students. We understand, appreciate, and celebrate accountability for providing that education. We ask that you are able to get a full picture of the impact that three different testing windows (and the sheer amount of testing time) is having on the ability of students to master their learning objectives, and teachers to teach. Ours is only one building, but we know from colleagues that we are not alone. Please know that we understand that this is a complex issue, and we seek all the best for all of Colorado's students, including valid and reasonable accountability measures across the state.

       Thank you,
       Nikki Myers, "Mrs. M."
       Academy Director (principal)

(Posted 4/22/15; Opinion: Guest Columns)

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