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A key question as South Carolina standardized testing season starts: How much is too much?

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Seventh-graders Sammy Collins (left to right), Quinn Vorster and Jackson Marchell grade each other's practice essays for the SC READY test at Laing Middle School on Tuesday. "I think we're a little over-prepared," Marchell said. Paul Bowers/Staff

When standardized testing season began at Drayton Hall Elementary in Charleston, Leah Rhyne volunteered to cover the walls of her daughter's third-grade classroom with blue paper.

According to testing protocol, the room needed to be a blank space devoid of hints. The students took a vow of secrecy about the questions on the test. Any doodles, notes or scrap-paper calculations they made during the test went straight to the shredder.

Rhyne's daughter Zoe entered a whole new world of testing in the third grade. By the time the school year ends, she will have taken the Measures of Academic Progress test three times, as well as the state-mandated SC READY tests in English and math.

Just shy of her ninth birthday, Zoe has come to the same conclusion about high-stakes testing as a growing number of parents, teachers and school administrators.

"I think there's a bit too much," Zoe said.

For what it's worth, the state superintendent of education agrees. A former educator, Superintendent Molly Spearman said she hears a familiar refrain every time she visits a school around this time of year.

"I am all for less assessment. It confirms what I am trying to do in Columbia, to tell the Legislature that we need to test less," Spearman said during a visit to Charleston County last week. "We need to be accountable, but the accountability needs to be meaningful for the students and for the parents and teachers. And that’s not what you get with a 'bubble-in' test."

But Spearman's hands are tied unless she can sway the Legislature. State and federal laws mandate the current jumble of tests in South Carolina schools with the exception of MAP, which some school districts have opted to use for diagnostic purposes. And the trend in state politics is toward more reliance on standardized tests, not less.

Rather be learning

Starting next school year, under the state's 2014 Read to Succeed Act, all schools will be required to retain any student in the third grade who fails the English portion of SC READY.

An adage in education circles is that third grade is when students go from learning to read, to reading to learn. Proponents of the cutoff provision in the Read to Succeed Act reasoned that if students can't read a textbook going into fourth grade, they will end up falling behind in every subject.

But the single high-stakes test could prove to be a real hurdle for students who don't test well or who struggle with anxiety. Probably not for Zoe. More than anything, Zoe said, she was just bored during her state tests this spring. She had to read old poems and write a long essay, and the math questions were too easy. Zoe, her mother said, is "a precocious little goober."

Zoe's grudge against testing is personal, too. She missed out on Take Your Kid to Work Day because she had to take yet another test.

"What would you rather be doing?" Rhyne asked her daughter.

"Playing on your iPad," Zoe said, "or learning something interesting."

Sharon Wall, a longtime district superintendent from Edgefield County and chairwoman-elect of the State Board of Education, said she understands her constituents' concerns about over-testing, and in many cases she agrees. She does think standardized testing has a place, though, and some — like the MAP test — can be useful tools for parents and teachers seeking to understand exactly what a student needs to learn.

"Testing tells us, is a teacher teaching what she’s supposed to be teaching? Are the children learning what they’re supposed to be learning?" Wall said.

Some simply opting out

Students, parents and teachers have been getting burned out on standardized testing at least since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which staked much of federal education policy on improving test scores. In a 2015 PDK/Gallup poll, two-thirds of public-school parents said schools place too much emphasis on testing.

Ask a dozen parents at their next PTA meeting, and you might hear a dozen reasons why they're wary of testing: It stresses their children out; it leads some teachers to "teach to the test;" the tests are imperfect measures; and test scores are sometimes used to punish teachers or even label entire schools as "failing."

It's enough to lead some parents to civil disobedience.

In 2015, Kelley Suddeth became one of Greenville County's first parents to join the national "opt out" movement. She mailed a letter to her son Stone's middle school principal saying he would sit out some of the tests required for eighth-graders. Stone stood his ground as three different administrators pressed him to take the state-mandated test and then gave him a disciplinary referral for his refusal to obey.

Other South Carolina parents have been pulled their kids out of tests since then, even after the state Department of Education issued a 2015 memo forbidding it. School districts risk losing federal funding through programs like Title I if too many students skip the tests.

Sarah Shad Johnson, a Mount Pleasant parent and co-founder of Charleston Area Community Voice for Education, said the opt-out movement isn't going away. Parents are especially concerned about the tests required for third- through eighth-graders, she said.

"We still have parents that are opting out all across the state, and I don’t have a number for you, but the concern is still there that the test scores are being overused," Johnson said.

Tests of tomorrow

Spearman visited Laing Middle School in Mount Pleasant Tuesday to learn about the school's nationally renowned program for teaching science, technology, engineering and math — but the first thing she saw was testing.

Seventh-graders sat at high-top tables in the lobby reviewing each other's practice essays for SC READY. Touring the halls with Spearman, Principal Jay Whitehair noted testing season was in full swing.

"We're not advancing kids between mid-April and mid-May," Whitehair said. "We're assessing kids, we're not advancing."

Charleston County School District Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, who joined the tour, said she'd like to see tests that can assess students on their performance, not just on their regurgitation of facts. Spearman agreed.

In the future, South Carolina will expect its schools to teach a lot more than academic basics. The Profile of the South Carolina Graduate, adopted by the Legislature in 2015, includes hazily defined qualities such as "Integrity," "Perseverance" and "Knowing how to learn." The current battery of tests can't assess those qualities.

One possible solution? Artificial intelligence-based assessment. Postlewait brought up the idea at Laing. 

"With artificial intelligence programmed in, it's possible to understand which concepts the student knew and applied, and which concepts the student didn't know," Postlewait said.

Some computer-based tests, such as MAP, already adapt to a student's answers, ramping up the difficulty when he or she gets a correct answer and pinpointing progress more precisely than a pass/fail test. AI tests could go beyond that, analyzing the steps a student takes to solve a problem in an interactive environment.

The programs, still in development, could one day determine not just what a student knows, but how he or she applies it. A professor in the University College London Knowledge Lab highlighted one experimental model in the journal Nature Human Behavior in March, saying it could replace the "blunt instruments" of existing tests.

Spearman invited Postlewait to give input as the state considers the next generation of accountability measures.

"We're moving toward performance measures," Spearman said. "Y'all need to be involved."

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or

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