A survey compiled by the Alabama Education Association suggests some teachers in the Mobile County Public School System are feeling overburdened by new testing and paperwork requirements that many believe aren’t even helping students.

Conducted in November, the survey questioned hundreds of educators about the system’s use of Common Formative Assessments (CFAs), tests created, administered and analyzed by classroom teachers as an indicator of how well students are mastering their curriculum.

Asked about the tests last month, MCPSS Superintendent Martha Peek compared them with the diagnostic tests a doctor might perform on a new patient.

“When you go to a doctor, they give you a test to see what may be needed, and then they give you medication. If that doesn’t work, they come back and test again,” Peek said. “Any time this kind of assessment is given, it’s simply to narrow the focus in on what students’ understanding of the knowledge being presented is.”

However, reaction to the CFA process has been mixed. While some doubt its effectiveness because preparing for the tests can take away from regular classroom instruction, others simply said the new requirement is asking too much of teachers. In the recent survey, which was collected and shared with Lagniappe by AEA, more than 200 teachers said they spend an average of 10 hours every week preparing, reviewing or retesting CFAs — hours often put in during teachers’ planning periods or after school.

Teachers in some schools said they are required to administer as many as three CFAs every quarter, which is in addition to the End of Quarter Tests teachers also create and preparing students for annual standardized tests.

“Unfortunately, the survey results confirmed what we already knew: the CFA process places an unreasonable burden on MCPSS teachers and the rewards of that work do not even come close to justifying the cost of their time,” AEA representative Jesse McDaniel said. “Teachers are writing, administering or grading so many tests in addition to all the lesson planning and data meetings, they don’t have enough time in the classroom just working with kids.”

Among those teachers surveyed, there were some fairly universal concerns over a lack of time to prepare and teach the subject matter in between each CFA, as well as the loss of planning and “personal time” the extra workload has caused for some. However, the majority of those teachers, around 80 percent, also said they don’t think CFAs are helping their students learn, and in some cases might even be “detrimental to them.”

One teacher said the time spent creating the “useless CFAs” could be better spent “planning effective lessons and activities for students.” Others said MCPSS students were “already tested to death” before CFAs became a requirement in August.

Mobile County School officials say in-house testing helps measure student learning, but some teachers think preparing multiple required assessments takes instruction time away from students who are already "tested to death." (Jason Johnson)

Mobile County School officials say in-house testing helps measure student learning, but some teachers think preparing multiple required assessments takes instruction time away from students who are already “tested to death.” (Jason Johnson)

“Teachers feel their students are being tested far too often, and classroom creativity is almost nonexistent,” McDaniel said. “This year the pressure has been increased to such a degree, some teachers feel like test robots and not the professionals they truly are.”

However, not all feedback was negative. Many said CFAs can provide insight about students’ knowledge of the curriculum, and others said they are “useful” and “effective” in preparing for standardized tests such as the ACT Aspire. According to Peek, that’s one of the benefits of CFAs — they “check student knowledge and guide teaching” ahead of each quarterly test and ultimately help prepare students for state standardized tests, which she called “the ultimate summative assessment.”

“They don’t affect anything we report of the state, but it helps students have the knowledge and skills necessary to take those once-a-year tests,” Peek said. “It’s the cycle of learning.”

Those quarterly tests, or EQTs, were originally created by the central office staff, but most teachers have been required to create, administer and analyze them since 2014. When that change was made, MCPSS saw some of the same complaints it is seeing now from teachers having to work additional hours without additional compensation.

However, Peek said teachers are supposed to work collaboratively with co-workers on the same grade level or subject area to generate their CFAs — something she said is instrumental in gauging where a student’s comprehension level is compared to their peers.

“In education, we have to be careful to avoid grading in isolation, because you don’t want your students’ grades to be inflated because you’re grading just against your class,” Peek said. “You also want to make sure, on the opposite end, that you’re not aligned with standards and tests that are so hard students can’t complete them.”

However, some teachers said the material is too difficult, specifically for special education students and others in the general population that may have ADHD or other learning disadvantages. And though there’s no impact on a school’s standing with the state, Peek said, students’ grades are affected by their CFA scores.

There’s also been some frustration because not every school or every teacher is being asked to the do the same thing. In March, an MCPSS spokesperson told Lagniappe teacher participation in CFAs would not be mandatory, but in August the system began requiring CFAs in reading.

Peek recently said “some schools may be doing them in other subject areas,” which seems to align with some of the comments in the AEA’s survey. One teacher said she was being asked create three CFAs and an EQT every quarter in the subjects of math, reading and science. MCPSS officials have been presented with the data the AEA collected, and Peek has said the district is “cognizant” of the concerns some teachers have expressed about the CFA process.

“We know how hard our teachers are working, but we need a detailed, quality measurement of students’ progress so we can make sure they’re meeting the standards,” she said. “Paperwork is a part of all of our jobs, just as it is in medicine, banking or law. If anybody has anything they want to share about the process, there’s a paperwork committee that meets every month they can sent their comments to, and they will be considered.”