SF Teachers Fight ‘Testing Madness’

Parents fight off a union-backed proposal to deprioritize tests for dyslexia, math skills, and more — for now. This isn’t just about classroom overload; it’s also a reflection of the city’s divisions.

Samantha Babst is in fifth grade at Lafayette, a public elementary school in the Outer Richmond, and she loves to read. That wasn’t always the case. Her mother, Emily Grimm, says that early in elementary school, Samantha would do everything possible to avoid reading in class — even ask to go to the bathroom if her turn was coming up.

She was adept at hiding her troubles. If mandatory tests for dyslexia and other reading problems weren’t in place starting in kindergarten, Samantha might not have been caught early. (Technically speaking, she has “specific learning disorder with impairment in reading, mild to moderate.”)

“We wouldn’t have known she had issues, if not for the individual screenings required by the school district,” says Grimm, who then arranged extra reading help for Samantha.

Emily Grimm and daughter Samantha. (Photo by Emily Grimm)

It’s crucial to intervene early for reading difficulties, experts say. By third grade, kids who aren’t identified and helped have a lot more trouble catching up. “It makes a huge difference,” says Nancy Cushen White, a professor at the UCSF Dyslexia Research Center. Reading troubles can lead to behavior problems, stress, and low self-esteem. “Imagine going to school every day knowing there’s no way in heck you can do what your teacher wants you to do.”

So why did two San Francisco Board of Education members, backed by the local teachers’ union United Educators of San Francisco, try to change the district’s rules and make such testing optional, instead of mandatory?

Their answer: There is too much testing in schools, and too much faith that it actually helps students. Union president Lita Blanc characterized it like this at a meeting in October: “testing madness.”

Putting aside statewide tests, standardized testing mandated by the school district takes up more than four hours per student per year, district officials say. That’s down from 11 hours a few years ago. Blanc disputes the new lower number, but even if true, the system needs an overhaul, she says.

“Testing and data were elevated to a good in and of themselves” without proof that they provide meaningful information to parents or constructive feedback to teachers, according to Blanc. She sees the data-centricity as part of a “long-term plan” to privatize schools.

Grimm says she’s a big supporter of the teachers’ union, but feels the original proposal from the two school board members, Stevon Cook and Mark Sanchez, was going to “toss kids like mine under the bus.”

‘A red flag’

The resolution Cook and Sanchez first drafted would have made currently mandatory assessments optional for teachers. But Grimm, other parents, and school district officials pushed back hard. Just before Thanksgiving, they got results. Cook and Sanchez took out the “optional” language and replaced it with a time-honored compromise: a committee to study the problem and make recommendations.

Stevon Cook and Mark Sanchez.

The Board of Education will vote on the new version at its December 12 meeting, along with a new teacher union contract. If approved, the committee, made up of parents, teachers, union officials, and school district officials, is supposed to start work soon. Sanchez wants it to convene before the winter break to have any hope of making recommendations by the end of the current school year.

The change is a big win for parents who resisted the original resolution. “Opt-in was not an option for us,” says Alida “Lee” Fisher. “It was a red flag.”

Fisher is chair of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, a group of mostly parents that lobbied to change the resolution. The CAC will have a seat on the new committee. Fisher is also a mother of four kids in the city’s public schools. One has medical problems; another has a customized instruction plan known in district-speak as an “IEP.”

The assessments in question involve a fair amount of work. They don’t only focus on reading; they’re for math, for kindergarten readiness, and a lot more. Each assessment often takes place more than once a year, so that a student’s progress can be tracked.

The union did not get the flexibility or reduction in testing it wanted, but Blanc thinks the new committee, if approved, is a “big step forward,” in part because it improves upon an informal committee that doesn’t include parents. The goal is to find “the happy medium between accountability and overkill,” she says.

How much impact the committee will have is yet to be seen. Many of the details have yet to be figured out. Board commissioner Sanchez, who has been a teacher and principal in the district, tells The Frisc the committee is a good compromise. Finally, he says, teachers and parents will be able to add their input to the assessment process. (This is Sanchez’s second board stint. His first ran from 2000 to 2009.)

Teacher turnover

In a district where teachers are struggling to live near the city, let alone in it, turnover is high, especially for relatively new hires.

The data above are from a 2017 SFUSD report.

Recent reports have highlighted the acute crisis for educators trying to survive in San Francisco; the math teacher who is also homeless crystallized the challenges. The city’s high costs and housing scarcity aren’t much of a blocker for software developers and executives, but can be crippling for folks like teachers.

The burden of extra tests, plus the technical mandates they require, add stress and complexity to a situation where it’s already “hard for new teachers to get a foothold,” explains Sanchez.

That will likely be a point of contention on the new committee. District officials have countered that as more parents demand to track their kids’ progress, teachers don’t have the time or, for newer teachers, the expertise to create assessments on their own.

Social equity could also raise pointed questions for the committee. In short, are standardized tests good or bad for disadvantaged kids? The district’s assessment officials maintain that testing is crucial for leveling out inequities and flagging underperforming schools. Despite backing off the original resolution’s intent to make assessments optional, co-author Stevon Cook remains adamant that overtesting is a particular burden on schools with limited resources and chronic absenteeism.

For a recent three-year period, teacher turnover in Bayview schools shot well past the district’s averages:

“There are larger barriers that these tests aren’t solving for,” Cook said after changing the resolution.

Will any current tests get the ax? Sanchez thinks most teachers would continue with the early literacy screening used by the district, known as Fountas & Pinnell. The first resolution he and Cook drafted even gave it their blessing, to some extent:

But there could be room for discussion once the committee convenes.

“I’m not a fan of Fountas & Pinnell,” says UCSF dyslexia expert White. (California passed a 2015 law to develop guidelines for dyslexia, which White helped write. But the guidelines aren’t mandatory, nor do they say which test should be used.) White stresses that F&P, like all universal screening tools, should be easy to use and return results to teachers quickly. It doesn’t always work that way, she says, “but it’s better than nothing.”

A few of Samantha Babst’s favorite books.

That’s exactly what parents like Emily Grimm would say. She now recounts how her daughter Samantha makes sure to pack her favorite books when visiting her grandmother. And sometimes Samantha says she wants to work at Green Apple, the venerable Richmond district bookshop, when she grows up.

Alex Lash is editor in chief of The Frisc.

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