Teachers seek contract clause on testing

Published 4:15 pm Saturday, August 10, 2013

ST. PAUL — St. Paul teachers are pushing back against the crush of student testing by seeking a contract clause curtailing standardized assessments.

The unusual bargaining item is part of their contract talks, but there appears to be little chance district leaders will consent. If they do, the district — and possibly the state — could face sanctions.

It’s the latest sign of protest in education against the amount of testing, much of it driven by the federal No Child Left Behind law that has been in place for more than a decade.

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St. Paul Federation of Teachers president Mary Cathryn Ricker said too much time is spent preparing students in grades three through eight for the mandatory reading and math tests. Teachers want the district to come up with its own testing regimen and discuss how those assessments are used.

“You’ve now had a ridiculous amount of your learning time taken away from you,” Ricker said.

St. Paul’s chief academic officer Matt Mohs said the district won’t violate state and federal law with such a clause.

“We don’t see the contract as the appropriate place to have those conversations,” Mohs said.

Minnesota education officials said such a move could result in federal education dollars being withheld from the district or state. Assistant Education Commissioner Charlene Briner said the state won’t welcome attempts to defy federal law.

“We would not want to be in a position where we were running askance of those state and federal laws in way that would ultimately subject us to some sort of sanction, financial or otherwise,” Briner said.

Around the country, there have been incidents of testing boycotts, but most involved district level assessments, not federally mandated tests. After complaints about standardized testing in Chicago Public Schools, school officials this week announced they would cut back on the number given to students.

Other teachers unions in Minnesota are paying close attention to the St. Paul effort.

Julie Blaha, the president of the teachers union the Anoka-Hennepin district, said she thinks testing is ripe for contract talks if it reduces the amount of time that teachers have with their students in the classroom.

“Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” Blaha said. “When our students’ learning conditions are not where they need to be, that affects us at work.”