YELLOW SPRINGS — The Yellow Springs School District is one of eight school districts in Ohio aiming to find an alternative to state assessments. As members of the Innovative Lab Network (ILN), the district was approved by the state, but is awaiting federal approval, for a waiver in regards to state assessments.
“The kids who score the highest on these standardized tests are often students who, in a traditional school setting, breeze right through … and graduate from high school without having to really overcome any real obstacles in their life, without ever really developing grit and the ability to overcome adverse circumstances,” Superintendent Mario Basora of the Yellow Springs School District said. “I feel like what happens is those schools do those kids a disservice because then they go to college or their careers thinking everything’s going to be great, and as we know, life is tough – it’s not easy and it takes exceptional hard work to be successful.”
According to a document put forth by the Ohio Department of Education, the intent of the waivers is to provide flexibility for state assessments to ILN districts that may relate more to the educational programs by the schools that apply. The Yellow Springs School District, which utilizes project-based learning to teach its students the curriculum, is expecting federal approval or denial for the waiver in the coming months. In the meantime, the district will continue to assess its students in the current manner.
Regardless of the results, elementary and middle school students will still be tested as a benchmark in the areas of reading and math, while high school students will be tested in the same manner for reading, math and science.
“It (tests) celebrates convergent thinking, which is the idea that there’s a right and wrong answer for everything,” Basora said. “It dismisses and punishes divergent thinking, which is the notion of creative thinking and having many other ways of looking at a problem … If you’re teaching a kid to pass a standardized test, you won’t value divergent thinking, especially if your evaluations are tied to it – you’re going to push convergent thinking … I think we’re setting kids up for failure, because when they graduate, they’re going to go to a world of work where, increasingly, businesses are looking for creative, entrepreneurial thinkers.”
Seventh graders within the district learned the measurement unit in their mathematics course by constructing laptop cases for classrooms. They spent six weeks working as a team interviewing teachers about what they wished to see in the laptop cases, designing a prototype out of cardboard and constructing the final project. Basora said students in a traditional school system would have learned the same unit in two weeks, but wouldn’t have retained the information as well in the future, and sited studies for his information.
“Our hope is the work we’re doing will expand and will be available to all kids in all districts across the state,” he said. “It’s time we change how we evaluate schools and our kids to match the needs of the 21st century, and what businesses and industries need and frankly, what our kids need to be successful.”
District leaders held a public meeting for the second year in a row recently to inform parents of the coming changes in the testing system, as well as options relating to opting out. Instead of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) testing that was used last year, districts across the state will utilize American Institute for Research (AIR) assessments. The shift will reduce the amount of state tests students must complete, but Basora said they are still being assessed more than they have compared to two years ago. All grades, with an exception to third, 11 and 12, have safe harbor (opting out) options. If students opt out of the third grade reading guarantee, they will receive a zero and will have to take the test again. High school students who opt out are at risk for not graduating.
Basora is unsure at this point how students in other grades who choose to opt out will impact the district’s report card.
“The ability to overcome adversity and bounce back is critically important for life success,” he said. “Not to mention the fact that we’re not measuring on these tests what kids need to be successful in 2015, beyond the world of high school and college. What we’re measuring is memorization of facts and the ability to put them on paper and choose between multiple answers, which is a black and white way of looking at learning and doesn’t account for the grey.”
Whitney Vickers can be reached by calling her directly at 937-502-4532, or by searching for @wnvickers on Twitter. For content online, visit our website or like our Facebook page.