Tampa teacher, facing firing, describes year-end music test as her "worst nightmare"

A teacher's ordeal shows the extent of standardized testing to non-critical skills.
Vanessa Lewis is accused of helping her students during a music test.
Vanessa Lewis is accused of helping her students during a music test.
Published October 28 2016
Updated October 30 2016

TAMPA — They sat facing banks of computers, wearing headphones, children as young as 6.

Their teacher's slip of paper instructed her, "Step one, press the start button." But almost immediately, the test was a mess.

Kids had trouble logging in. They were confused about how to enter their date of birth. They were supposed to punch in the seven-digit student number they use for lunch. But some of the children at Westchase Elementary School bring lunch from home.

Random music blared from a speaker. Kids called out, "Oh, I know that answer." Teacher Vanessa Lewis told them, "Shush!" She thought she was having a heart attack. "It was like my worst nightmare come true," she said.

But it wasn't even close.

Days later, she was ordered to report to a district center in east Tampa.

That's where she learned she had been accused of cheating.

Whether she cheated or not, what happened in that classroom raises questions beyond that one teacher's actions.

Because those children weren't taking a high-stakes test in math, or reading, or science; some of them had already sat through those state tests — weeks' worth.

Their computerized test during the second week of May was for music, the class in which their parents once learned to play the triangle. This is what testing bureaucracy has come to, assessment of a class once intended to identify kids with a real love and aptitude for music, reduced to answers about pitch, canon, melody and tempo.

The Hillsborough County School District gives a standardized test for elementary art, too. And gym. And in high school, ceramics.

"I think it's kind of ridiculous," said South Tampa parent Cynthia Shellabarger, whose daughter had to answer questions about tennis on an end-of-course exam even though they had not learned about tennis in her gym class.

"It just seems like a bad process."

• • •

In public education's drive to hold schools and teachers accountable, they test. And test. And test some more. Critics contend that not only does excessive testing stress out children and sap their love of learning, they aren't even reliable in the younger years, when tests are more likely to measure whether a child can sit still through an assessment.

Testing fatigue is feeding a national "opt out" movement that has parents placing terminally ill children in front of television cameras to protest that they, too, are being forced endure standardized tests.

At first, they were only tested in major academic subjects.

But as standardized test scores became more important in evaluating teacher performance, problems arose when trying to assess how well teachers of electives like art and music were doing their jobs.

In parts of Florida, these teachers were being graded based on how students in their school could read, not how well the child had mastered the skills of a special subject. So the elective teachers rebelled; seven — including an Escambia County music teacher — filed a lawsuit alleging they were being treated unfairly.

The suit was dismissed. But orders came down from the state's top education officials:

Every class in Florida must have an assessment at the end of the year.

So physical education students must sit through a written test about "movement competency." Elementary art students must show they have learned "critical thinking and reflection," and "historical and global connections."

How exactly does the district test children in these areas?

The Tampa Bay Times asked for sample questions from past tests. The district would not provide them, citing test security issues.

• • •

Vanessa Lewis, 64, is that quintessential quirky music teacher some of us remember from childhood. She was born in London and educated in Canada. Her ancestors were musicians, six generations back. She taught for nearly a decade at Shorecrest, a prestigious private school in Pinellas County, then relocated to Westchase in 2000.

"No one sleeps in my class," she wrote on her application. "More often, the children leave the music room with a song in their hearts and a tune on their lips."

She told the Times it was much the same way at Westchase, where the high point of her day was "when I see my kids laughing and giggling and singing and playing along."

She liked to stage elaborate productions that drew crowds so large she had to book a high school or run the show for four performances. Her daughter's friends, now adults, would visit years later to see her bouncing around with the children.

"When I started Westchase, I was a shy little girl," says a letter in her personnel file from a former student. "You sparked this little ball of creativity in my mind."

She got the highest possible ratings on the last four evaluations available in her file.

In today's modern teaching landscape, all of that can unravel after a bad half-hour in a computer lab. The circumstances were ripe for disaster.

Lewis, who was used to a format in which she played music and read questions, now had to administer the test via computer. She is not good at technology. And she missed a training session, relying on the school's art teacher to fill her in on the instructions.

Her kids, who had in some cases sat through weeks of testing already, were exhausted.

"They were done," she said.

Still, her job depended on their scores.

Children told their teachers that Lewis fed them some of the answers.

"My own students said it took forever because they had to sit with their hands raised until she came to them and checked their answers," third-grade teacher Kim Galang told the district. And it was a good thing, a child reportedly told Galang, "because I had like five wrong."

"She pointed to one and said, 'That's wrong,' " a second-grader told the principal.

Lewis rebutted their statements, one by one. She said she did not tell the second-grader that the answer was wrong, but that the child had not submitted the answer properly. She admitted that she told a fourth-grade child to "read the question regarding beats." But she insisted she did not give the answer.

She said the seven children interviewed did not reflect all 800 she taught. That teachers who made statements against her were not even there. That little kids can't be expected to navigate a test like that without help.

Lewis points to the test scores as evidence she didn't cheat. They were terrible, she said. "In the toilet."

She hired an attorney to represent her in the termination case that is now under way. He is asking for an open hearing before the School Board in December.

Whether she actually meant to cheat may not matter.

Hillsborough has a zero-tolerance policy for testing irregularities.

Even helping a kid catch a blank question can get you fired.

• • •

If the costs of testing are antsy kids, anxious teachers and the occasional "testing irregularity" crisis, but the payoff is making sure teachers get a fair job evaluation, where is the line?

Maybe these special subject tests.

Gregory Cizek, a University of North Carolina education professor who has written books about testing, is not convinced that a 30-minute test ruins children's music experience over the course of the year.

But the problem, he said, is that states take great care to design good tests for the major subjects such as reading and math, but not for the "boutique classes," and these tests exist largely to protect teachers' due process rights. Taken together, he said, they can have a cumulative effect on children.

"In an attempt to make it fair for educators," Cizek said, "you really increase the burden on students.

Shellabarger, whose daughter is now a freshman in high school, remembers being appalled that the children had to memorize art history terms, and that the teacher told them it was just to pass a test.

Her daughter, Sierra, said, "It's not that big of a deal."

But Cynthia Shellabarger, a former teacher, worries about children who have test anxiety.

"They never get to find out what the answers were to that test," she said. "And the high achievers, they want to be able to see, what questions did I miss?"

Sharon Rhyce, who retired recently, taught second grade at Valrico Elementary and shared many of the frustrations Lewis experienced at Westchase.

She, too, had younger students who could not remember their student number. She would try to get them to ask every possible question — like, what time is lunch — before testing began. After that, she would look for a testing assistant for anything, even a broken pencil.

"It's a really tough role to be in," she said. "I know teachers are so scared now. You want to help a kid because you don't what them to mess up. But you don't want to help them because you don't want your job to be on the line."

The Times reached out to professional musicians to see what they thought about standardized tests.

Grigorios Zamparas, a concert pianist and music professor at the University of Tampa, said he was a bit troubled by the idea of testing children in first grade on their knowledge of music.

"It should be felt," he said. "They feel the rhythm, they play the drums. . . . They should be experiencing it, not memorizing a lot of musical terms," he said.

Having not seen the actual test, he said he could not judge whether it is inappropriate.

But saxophonist Dick Rumore, whose family-owned Paragon Music Center has taught kids how to play instruments for almost half a century, was convinced that it is.

"They should be having fun," Rumore said. "It should be all about the fun and camaraderie of playing together. They need to have performances and they need to have the kids play. Why make it more difficult? They have enough things to study."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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