Berkeley teachers blast district for standardized test decision

Teachers flooded the Sept. 12 Berkeley School Board meeting to criticize a new standardized testing program adopted without their input. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A dramatic Berkeley School Board meeting Wednesday night, the first since the school year began, drew dozens of teachers who were angry the district implemented a new standardized testing program without their input.

District leaders plan to introduce the computerized Star reading and literacy assessments in grades K-5, beginning for most students this fall. Superintendent Donald Evans said the tests would help the district gather important data on Berkeley Unified’s significant racial disparities and better target resources at the students who are falling behind from a young age.

The teachers, who filled half the board room and held up colorful signs, said the additional testing would take up valuable instructional time, raise student anxiety, and foster “testing fatigue” among even the district’s youngest kids. During the public comment period, speakers criticized the Star test, asking why literacy educators weren’t consulted on best reading assessment practices. Those educators already conduct multiple sophisticated assessments of students’ skills and needs, speakers said.

Teachers said they should have been notified earlier about tests they are expected to administer in just a couple weeks. Both the educators and School Board members said they hadn’t heard about the plan until last week or soon before. Because the test decision was not formally brought to the School Board for approval or discussion, and was not on Wednesday’s agenda, the board had limited time to comment on it at the meeting, and district staffers couldn’t respond publicly to the teachers’ concerns.


“Ten years ago I came to BUSD because of its reliance on assessment and curriculum that align with children’s cognitive and emotional development, and not the latest trends from publishers and testing companies whose focus is on making money,” said Cara Eisenberg, Berkeley Arts Magnet literacy coach. “At a time when testing reform is taking place nationwide, why are we in Berkeley suggesting more testing of students? As we know, over-assessing students takes away from instructional time and rarely improves performance.”

District administrators were not available for an interview by publication time. In a letter sent to elementary school teachers and leaders on Sept. 1, district staff wrote that the Star tests would be “critical” tools for assessing early reading skills and needs.

“After multiple years of looking at data and visiting classrooms, the Educational Services team feels that we need additional and more specific information about the root causes of reading struggles for our youngest students in order to better direct resources and make more informed decisions about support options,” said an FAQ also provided by district staff.

The outcomes from the standard assesements conducted through the district’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project curriculum often don’t match up with the scores on the state’s SBA (Smarter Balanced Assessment) scores, staff said. The state tests also do not begin until third grade.

“We need an earlier benchmark to effectively support our most underserved students,” the FAQ said.

The Star tests are designed to track development in vocabulary, phonics, reading comprehension, text analysis and several other areas. The district’s plan has each student taking the test three times a year. The assessments only take an average of 20 minutes to complete, said the letter from Director of Schools Maggie Riddle and Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi.

At Wednesday’s meeting teachers questioned that claim, saying it would take much longer than 20 minutes to distribute computers, teach very young students how to use them, and provide the extra time some kids are entitled to. In the young grades, they said, the test are supposed to be given in small groups, which would take up more time as well.

“Who does that lost learning time matter to the most? It’s the students that are already behind, that are already part of the gap, that are already struggling in school,” Eisenberg said.

The teachers said kindergarteners are too young to take standardized tests, pointing out that BUSD had advocated for state testing to start later in the past.

The Star website promotes the test as a predictor for student performance on “high stakes” state tests, a point teachers picked up on and criticized Wednesday.

“Tests for the sake of predicting performance on other tests,” said Malcolm X teacher Rachel Curtin. She and her colleagues questioned whether the Star test would provide any new or accurate information. (The Star test, which used to stand for Standardized Test for the Assessment of Reading, is distinct from California’s old state STAR tests, Standardized Testing and Reporting, which were replaced with the SBA a few years ago.)

“It boggles the mind that we would subject all of our youngest students to new testing regimens district wide without first simply using a small sample of students to run a pilot,” said Jefferson Elementary teacher Barry Fike.

Kids check out books at the Washington Elementary library. District staff say the assessment will help identify kids who struggle with reading earlier on. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Cathy Campbell, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers union president, choked up when addressing the board after the educators.

“Let me be extremely clear. If teachers and teacher coaches are consistently not given a chance to have input into decisions that affect them and their students, they will become demoralized and they will leave BUSD,” she said through tears.

Some School Board members seemed as thrown off as the teachers were by the announcement of the new testing plan.

Board member Ty Alper said he couldn’t comment on the value of the Star tests because he hadn’t had enough time to get informed. (Though he said the use of a “universal screener” in the district had been under discussion for about a year.) He said teachers should have been notified much sooner too.

“It seems like a problem to me if the professionals that are being asked to use the screener to inform their instruction aren’t told about them until just before they’re going to be given, and don’t know how they’re supposed to use them,” Alper said. “That seems like a breakdown of process and communication to me that I urge staff to address.” 

One board member, Karen Hemphill, expressed support for the testing — and was met with hisses from the crowd.

Hemphill and superintendent Evans both said they had watched the racial achievement gap persist or widen over long careers in education, and it was clear to them the current efforts to help identify struggling students from the start were not enough.

“I want us to solve this, and if we’re not drilling down to find out what is it that we are not teaching effectively…in a real-time way that we can intervene, we’re not going to make the difference we can,” Hemphill said as teachers hissed.

Board member Judy Appel criticized the group who reacted to Hemphill, saying everyone in the room shared a commitment to reducing disparities despite different ideas about how to do so.

“When I hear you hissing my colleague who has given 12 years of her time to try to address the achievement gap in our district because you disagree with her philosophy…that really saddened me,” said Appel, receiving a hiss from one audience member herself.

“Did somebody just hiss me when I said we should respect one another?” Appel asked.

“Yup,” someone responded.

“All right,” said Appel, pausing. “I hope you’re not teaching those lessons to our kids.”

Evans concluded the brief board comments on the testing by trying to explain some of the staff rationale. One of the ways to close the achievement gap is “by really looking at data,” he said.

“You do need to be at the table, I appreciate that,” the superintendent said to the crowd of teachers. “But my fear sometimes is, how long do we have to wait? If you know of a better way than what we’re doing, help me.”

“We do,” a teacher called out.