It was a calculated act of civil disobedience. Susan Bowles, a veteran teacher of 26 years, knew exactly what she was doing when she refused to administer the FAIR standardized testing to her kindergarten students at Lawton Chiles Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida.
She was risking a job she loves, to do what she knows is right for her students. And what she knows is right is this: administering FAIR testing, some of which would need to be computerized, several times a year to kindergarten students is wrong and counterproductive.
Then something amazing happened. Instead of her being fired or reprimanded in September, the policy was changed. Now, K-2 students will not be required to take the FAIR tests Bowles refused to administer.
Required Computer Skills
In a letter Bowles wrote to parents, she explained that even though she would be in breach of contract, she couldn’t in good conscience give the test to her students. The FAIR testing, which is required three times a year, would have meant kindergarten students do testing on a computer using a mouse, Bowles said.
Although many of her students are well-versed in using tablets or smart phones, most had not used a desktop computer before. Once an answer is clicked, even if a mistake was made and a student accidentally clicked the wrong response, there is no way to go back to correct it. So the data that would have been collected would not even have been accurate.
“While we were told it takes about 35 minutes to administer, we are finding that in actuality, it is taking between 35-60 minutes per child,” Bowles wrote. “This assessment is given one-on-one. It is recommended that both teacher and child wear headphones during the test. Someone has forgotten there are other five-year-olds in our care.”
Bowles’s problem was not with the people she works for, she explained. “This is not an education problem. This is a government problem,” she wrote.
Bowles was not directly named in the letter to parents from officials changing the testing policy, but the letter does mention the recent attention surrounding the issue.
Dr. Owen Roberts, superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, expressed agreement with Bowles regarding standardized testing.
“I believe there is too much standardized testing going on, and that much of it does not offer educational benefits for our students. Many of the tests are also poorly designed and/or implemented,” said Roberts. “That being the case, I think the public debate over this issue is a very important one, and I hope it will spur state leaders to seriously review all the testing mandates they’ve adopted.”
Ben Scafidi, a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice and a professor of economics, said his 2013 study called “More Than Scores: An Analysis of Why and How Parents Choose Private Schools” indicates parents do not list testing scores as a top priority when they considering where to send their children to school. He conducted the study with James P. Kelly, surveying 754 parents whose children received scholarships to attend private schools of their choice through the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program.
The study examined the school choices of low- and middle-income parents for their children when transferring out of traditional public schools. It showed parents consider classroom management to be much more important than standardized test scores. In fact, only 10.2 percent of the parents listed standardized test scores as one of their top five reasons for choosing a particular school.
The issues of most concern cited by parents included student discipline at 50.9 percent; better learning environment, 50.8 percent; improved student safety, 46.8 percent; and more individualized attention for students, 39.8 percent.
‘This Teacher Is a Hero’
Scafidi said he admires teachers like Bowles who take a stand on behalf their students in regards to testing.
“The reality is this teacher is a hero,” said Scafidi, noting if Bowles had been fired or pushed out of her job she would have had to relocate to a different county to teach. “It is very difficult for teachers to stand up. That’s courage.”
Although some students may be familiar with computers, administrators cannot consider it a given for all students, Scafidi said.
“A lot of little kids don’t have a computer at home,” he said. “Low-income students don’t have a computer at home. Giving a test like that to kindergarten students is silly.”
‘Surprised and Pleased’
Bowles said she feels lucky to have had the opportunity to speak her mind because her husband was supportive and her children are grown. After hearing the policy had changed, she yelled, cried, and did a happy dance with other teachers who had been waiting outside her classroom because they had already heard the news, Bowles said.
“I was surprised and pleased that they actually backtracked on the FAIR, suspending it for one year,” said Bowles, adding that tension over standardized testing has increased because of Common Core. “Of course the fear is it will be back next year with a few tweaks.”
Bowles said the reason for her act of civil disobedience was the impact the FAIR testing was having on her relationship with her students and the lack of time she had left to teach.
“This fight should continue—not just regarding the excessive testing that takes away from our children’s learning, but also for the standards that have been adopted that are not developmentally sound, at least for elementary students,” Bowles said. “I can speak for the elementary grades that any developmental psychologist or early childhood educator would tell you that these standards are inappropriate.”
Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with the Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.