Candidates address testing, learning

February 22, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

Editor's note: This is the last of a four-part series in which the 14 candidates for the Washington County Board of Education talk about education-related issues. Question-and-answer sessions with each of the 14 candidates will appear in next Sunday's Herald-Mail.

Learning should be a prize unto itself, not just a means to a high test score, a majority of the candidates for Washington County Board of Education said last week.

But several disagreed on whether test success and knowledge are intertwined.

And some suggested that while tests are fair indicators of what students have absorbed, teachers need flexibility when they draw up lesson plans.

A few candidates accused Washington County Public Schools of being overly concerned with standardized test results.

In the last of a four-part series, the 14 school board candidates were asked for their philosophy about the following: "Are teaching for knowledge and teaching for a test the same thing?"


Six candidates said no and three said yes, although most couched their answers in qualifying statements.

Five other candidates drifted away from the question and went on to state other ideas.

There are four open seats on the school board. The eight candidates receiving the most votes in the March 2 primary will advance to the Nov. 2 general election.

Originally, 16 people filed to run for the school board, but two - Connie Jantz of Knoxville and Elizabeth Lay of Clear Spring - have dropped out of the race. Still, all 16 names will appear on the primary ballot.

In answering this week's question, Barry C. Harbaugh, William H. Staley and Wayne David Ridenour had the strongest critiques of the status quo. Each said, critically, that Washington County "teaches to the test."

Staley, 59, of Hagerstown, a retired Washington County welding teacher, said the school system only is concerned that students excel on tests "so we can tell the country that we scored high."

His idea for improvement: "Give the teachers a little more academic freedom to teach." He said the school board claims that a slew of standardized tests is mandated, but he's not so sure.

"Standardized tests prove nothing" about knowledge and only show that students can regurgitate facts, said Harbaugh, 44, of Clear Spring. Teachers worry about losing their certification if students do poorly, he said.

He suggested that school boards across Maryland band together and lobby state officials, who in turn could pressure the federal government for relief from too many tests.

"With benchmarks and high school assessments, teachers are being placed in a position where they have no choice but to emphasize only testable content," Ridenour, 52, of Williamsport, said in calling for "less micromanagement."

Under the philosophy of "essential curriculum," a teacher trying to avoid a poor evaluation and possible termination might, for example, exclude the Battle of Antietam from a Civil War lesson if it's not going to be on a test, he said.

Aligning curriculum

Three candidates said successful test scores should be a sign that lessons are planned well and students truly are learning.

"It's unfair to test what has not been taught," incumbent Bernadette Wagner said. "It's unwise to teach one thing, then test another. Curriculum should be properly aligned with the assessment."

Washington County has done that, giving teachers confidence to do effective work, which has led to high test scores, said Wagner, 46, of Hagerstown.

She said it's offensive to say Washington County "teaches to the test," making it sound as if teachers only tell students what types of information will be on exams.

A well-designed test is the key, Thomas G. Berry said.

"There should be no special teaching for a test," said Berry, 71, of Rohrersville. "If you know what the test is, your curriculum should kind of match, or at least match the essentials of it."

Washington County is faring well on some tests, he said. On others, there's room for improvement.

Because the Maryland State Assessment exam objectives are spelled out, "teachers know what skills are going to be tested but not what actual questions are going to be on the test ..." George "Bill" Sonnik, 57, of Williamsport, wrote in his answer to the question. "I personally do not feel that this is teaching to the test but is teaching the skills necessary to move to the next grade and coincidentally making the grade on the standardized test instrument."

Different approaches

Four candidates agreed with Staley and Harbaugh that there's a distinction between the two approaches to teaching.

Richard Bruce Grassby, 68, of Hagerstown, said seeing that students do well on standardized tests "is a technical thing. A teacher can figure out the maximum results for the maximum number of people and organize the material to get that effect."

Learning, though, is broader and more complex, he said.

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