Changing Standards, Assessments in Public Schools

By , August 12, 2013 10:22 am

Weeks before school resumes, nobody seems to know what assessment will be used in the upcoming year –the CMT/CAPT or new Smarter Balanced.

One teacher I spoke with said she thinks the new assessment, Smarter Balanced (SBAC) would be instituted during the 2014-2015 school year.  Another teacher admitted she was unsure exactly when SBAC would be phased in, other than during the next few years.

A member of the Hartford Board of Education deferred to the Superintendent. David Medina, Director of External Communications for the Hartford Public Schools, deferred to the Governor’s office, saying, “as far as I know, no decision has been made by the federal government with respect to Connecticut.”

Kelly Donnelly, for the State Department of Education, said: “We hope to hear by this Fall [which test will be used]. However, that ultimately depends on the USED’s process and timeline. It is worth noting that the testing wouldn’t be until the Spring of 2014.”

What Connecticut is waiting for is authorization from the U.S. Department of Education to use “flexibility.” Last month, the State Department of Education announced that this permission was being sought. The flexibility, they say, would offer “districts the option to administer the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessment rather than Connecticut’s legacy assessments, the CMT and CAPT, in this coming school year” and it would give “districts the option not to use state test data in educator evaluations for the 2013-14 school year.”

Common Core and Smarter Balanced

We attempted to take the practice test. It would not load on our computer.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced or SBAC) is behind developing the new test which is aligned to Common Core State Standards (CC). SBAC will replace the CMT and CAPT in Connecticut by 2014-2015, but possibly sooner if granted permission from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Common Core is not curriculum. The Common Core itself is a set of standards. According to its website, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers describes CC as “a state-led effort that established a single-set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt.”

However, one Hartford elementary teacher says, “They’re called State Standards but states are pressured nationally to adopt them.”

Currently, CC has been adopted by all U.S. states, territories, and the District of Columbia, except for Alaska, Minnesota, Nebraska, Puerto Rico, Virginia, and Texas. It has received statements of support from a number of organizations including The College Board, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Parent Teacher Association, and Council of Administrators of Special Education.

According to its website, the Common Core establishes “what students need to learn, but they do not dictate how teachers should teach.”

Teachers Call Common Core a Mixed Bag

Common Core is a framework not a curriculum, but some teachers are treating it like curriculum, according to a teacher in the Hartford Public Schools. In other words, the fear that educators are teaching to the test is not one that will be alleviated by the change in assessment.

So far, one teacher has said that the way the standards have and will be implemented is “FUBAR.”

Still, there is cautious optimism about Common Core, with teachers finding it at least a slight improvement over what the CMT and CAPT had been measuring.

“Too many teachers over the past 10 years spend fifteen minutes of a half hour lesson discussing students’ predictions of what the text will be about, what’s going to happen next, etc.,” says a Hartford teacher. “It is an important comprehension strategy in my view, but it’s definitely not worth fifty percent of instructional time”

An elementary teacher from Hartford said she is “very concerned about the complete devaluing of fiction over nonfiction, the de-emphasis of reading full books as opposed to [a] ‘close read’ of small sections of text, and the way the concept of rigorous ‘reading’  in early grades is being interpreted by districts to focus away from phonics and towards more comprehension.”

Achievement-Driven or Profit-Driven?

Another criticism of CC and SBAC is that this new set of standards is less about learning than it is about textbook, testing, and test prep companies cashing in.

Every teacher we spoke with expressed some reservation about how these companies are working with the public schools. One Hartford teacher says, “there’s so little understanding about what the CC is [...] and districts are being talked into expensive purchases and throwing out old materials based on this label alone.”

The same elementary school teacher says, “before [CC] you could create a textbook to be marketed to one state’s standards, and with large scale adoption of the standards companies can stamp ‘Common Core Aligned‘ on anything and districts can be convinced they need it. And because it’s a framework, not a curriculum, virtually anything can claim to be ‘Common Core Aligned.’”

This speculation is not unique to teachers in urban schools.

A teacher from the Glastonbury Public Schools says, “a huge part of me thinks its just another way for text book and computer software companies to make money. Every time the government comes up with a new way to ‘ensure’ our students are ‘achieving high standards’ its another opportunity for textbook companies to make big bucks by selling boxed curriculum.”

Level Playing Field for Testing?

The SBAC is a computerized test. There are no other options. As far as anyone can tell since SBAC carefully describes its product as still being in progress, even the modifications given to students with learning disabilities or attention disorders would not include a pencil-and-paper test, though those student would have access to scrap paper.

One teacher from a wealthier school district said, “our school doesn’t have nearly enough computers for [the SBAC to be given in Spring 2014] nor do all of our students have the computer skills needed to take a test online.”

The sought-after flexibility, it seems, only benefits those schools with enough technological resources.

A July press release from Governor Malloy’s office says:

This investment in technology is not for general education, but specifically for SBAC.

The same press release says:

Since the adoption of the Common Core standards by the State Board of Education in 2010, local districts have been transitioning classroom instruction to match this new set of research-based, globally competitive K-12 expectations.  Students will take the assessments aligned to these new standards, the Smarter Balanced Assessment System, on computers or other computing devices.  These assessments will replace the traditional paper-and-pencil-administered CMT/CAPT legacy tests statewide beginning in 2014-15.  Districts will continue to administer the science CMT and science CAPT assessments.

In an op-ed for CT News Junkie, Sarah Darer Littman writes, “Even in Greenwich, one of the the wealthier and well-equipped districts in the state, I’ve heard concerns about adequate technological resources to administer the SBAC tests when they are implemented.”

Urging Students to Opt Out, Not Drop Out

Despite the change of assessment, there are parents and teachers still urging students to “opt out” — choose to not participate in the standardized testing.

For some, the issue is how student performance is linked to bonus pay. In Hartford, teachers, support staff, and administrators received bonuses based on the “overall school index,” or in simpler terms, how students at those schools fared on the CMT or CAPT. The data for 2012-2013 is not yet available, but in 2011-2012, over $2M was awarded to Hartford Public Schools’ employees for performance related to standardized testing, with some school principals receiving $10,000 bonuses.

For others, the issue is that standardized tests are not designed to measure student learning, so much as they are to evaluate teachers. One Hartford teacher sees this as part of the larger push to privatize public schools. If test scores at a school are too low, this is viewed as a reflection on the teachers, ignoring other factors at work. We have heard from several teachers that a student can arrive in the public schools on a Friday — from another country where English is not the dominant language — and have to take the standardized test on Monday. These mid-year moves happen often, making a teacher responsible for a student’s performance, despite having had little interaction with that child before the test; regardless of that child’s first language, this seems like a strange way to assess an instructor.

Instead of looking at the myriad reasons for low performance on these tests, the blame is put firmly on the teachers, and in some cases, the school is deemed irredeemable, closed down, and reopened — either as a re-branded public school or as a privatized one (charter). Looking at the recent push for “education reform” in Connecticut, a glance at the lobbying expenditures tells all one needs to know: over $4.65M was spent by a few organizations, including Achievement First and other charter school organizations, Teach for America, A Better CT, and ConnCAN.

Still, others prefer their children and students spend school days learning in an age-appropriate manner, rather than be subjected to the stress that comes with such high stakes testing. Subject matter deemed less relevant, like art and music, has notoriously been slashed from many schools in recent years, but teachers are not only concerned with this loss. A teacher from Glastonbury says, “I, and so many of my colleagues, feel we no longer have time time to even just sit down with the kids and have a conversation. No time for morning meetings or classroom discussions. It’s difficult to build a positive classroom environment that is safe for learning when district administration is pushing jam-packed schedules on us.”

We have heard from teachers that some schools tested students double last Spring — once with the CMT/CAPT, and again with the pilot SBAC. To make room for one thing, something else must be taken off the schedule.

Opt Out Procedure

Parents all over the nation are choosing to not allow their children to be subjected to standardized tests. There are policies in place, but that information is not readily available from the public schools or the State Board of Education. Representatives from the Hartford Public Schools and Connecticut State Department of Education did not answer my question about how students could opt out from taking the standardized tests.

Teachers, on the other hand, know the process: submit a letter to the child’s Principal saying that she or he will not be taking the test.

The procedure varies from state-to-state, but in Connecticut, this is what is widely accepted. We know parents who have simply spoken with their children’s teachers and had success, but for those wanting to take a more formal route, a letter to the Principal should do it.

United Opt Out National (UOO), an organization that wants to see an end to high-stakes testing, provides information on how parents in each state might navigate the process of having their children step aside. The organization says its mission is to “strengthen public education; fight corporate-based reforms that are threatening the concept and existence of an educational system that is publicly funded, and supports the “use of portfolio assessment for students and comprehensive evaluations for teachers.”

If a letter to the Principal is not sufficient, UOO urges parents to put into writing that they understand their rights, such as the right of the child to remain in school during testing days and to be given alternative assignments or activities. The organization has drafted a sample letter that parents can use for this purpose.

Parents often worry that their children will feel repercussions for going against the grain. Ceresta Smith, UOO co-founder, writes “to date, no school has been closed for parents opting their children out of testing; they have been closed for parents opting their children in.”

UOO says, “we are inundated with the false narrative that our public schools have completely and totally failed.”

To read more about a local family’s experience with opting out, read the archives. Teachers, parents, and students who have experience with opting out of taking standardized tests are invited to share their experiences in the comment section.

Teachers’ names were intentionally not used. The school climate is currently such that many fear retribution for speaking publicly.

One Response to “Changing Standards, Assessments in Public Schools”

  1. [...] Monday, Real Hartford reported that nobody on the City or State level in Connecticut seemed to know which assessment could be used [...]

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