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Fewers Tests, Better Culture: Ohioans Chime In About New School Standards

US Department of Education/ Flickr

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the new federal education law that replaces No Child Left Behind. The legislation gives states their own say in how they implement ESSA with input from their communities.

At 10 different meetings between August and October, about 12,000 Ohioans sat at round tables, eating crudité and talking about the future of the state’s education system.

Teachers and administrators spoke out about Ohio’s multiple jumps between standardized tests, and a concern that tests were taking up too much learning time.

At a meeting in Akron, Alicia Crowem - a Kent State University Associate Professor of Education - says she’s seen the effects at the college level.

“There were very good taking direction but not handling ambiguity by thinking on their own, outside of what the directions were or what was tested,” Crowe says.

Scrapping the tests

In Lorain County, parent Lynn Wrice-Head expressed concern about an over-emphasis on standardized testing.

“I hope that there’s clarity and we're not just teaching to the test, but truly using assessments that's going to measure what the child is learning," Wrice-Head says. "And we're all individuals that need to keep that in mind."

Her daughter Lakoya Head, a senior at Lorain High School, says she doesn’t feel like all of her teachers are fully engaged in student learning.

“If they start catering to our needs and the different learning styles, then our grades will become higher and our overall report card for our district will also raise,” Head says.

Changing the culture

Lakoya's mom adds that sometimes the problem is related to cultural misunderstandings between students and teachers, who may not come from the same communities and backgrounds.

Rhonda Hills is on the parent advisory board at Wilson Elementary School in Cleveland where her daughter goes to school.

“They don't see a lot of themselves represented in the classroom anymore and some of those cultural differences lead to misunderstandings that sometimes are deemed behavior problems when they really are not - they’re just cultural differences,” Hills says.

While the new federal law still requires standardized testing, it does allow for states to look at other measures, including school culture.

According to Philanthropy Ohio, which sponsored the ESSA events, about a quarter of the people who signed in called themselves community members. Less than 10 percent were parents.

About half of the people who turned up were teachers and administrators. Representatives from teachers unions were at all 10 meetings. Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said the questions asked in the meetings were very technical.

“My preference would have been that we had months ago more of the conversation around what been some of the challenges of teachers, students, parents, community members have faced, what would we like to see for our children and then how do we fit that was in an ESSA framework,” Cropper says.

Finding a balance

At a meeting in Dayton, Ohio Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner says a lot of the feedback that she heard was about change.

“A lot of churning, a lot of feelings that we're changing things every year," Lehner says. "You know: new rules, new tests, new standards, etc. And there has been a lot of disruption in the system."

But Lehner says she’s hearing simultaneous requests for change and more stability.

“You know? They’re sitting here saying, 'Don't change on stuff on us, but you need to change this.' So, that’s kind of a challenge but I think we’re up to it,” Lehner says.

Philanthropy Ohio will use reactions collected around the state to write a whitepaper. The non-profit will present the report to the Ohio State Board of Education during its November meeting.