Monkey Business: The Failing Of Connecticut’s Children

The Connecticut SBAC scores will be released by the State Department of Education any day now. The scores will be low. You will be told that the low scores are because the SBAC tests are RIGOROUS and our students don’t measure up.

Don’t believe it.

First of all, the test can’t possibly be rigorous because the Common Core Standards on which the tests are based are vapid. The Common Core English Standards do not teach students to be thoughtful readers, deep thinkers, or effective writers so the SBAC exams do not measure those competencies.

Secondly, we have no idea if what is tested has predictability for the students’ future success in the next grade or college because no one checked with teachers in higher grades or with college professors to see what competencies students will need. The Common Core English Standards were written by makers of standardized tests and are comprised of what can be measured by those tests, not comprised of what students need to learn.

Lastly, even though the Common Core has a low intellectual bar, most students will fail the tests because the passing grades have been artificially set. Last November, before any students had taken the 2015 SBAC tests, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, representing Governor Malloy, signed an agreement that the 2015 SBAC tests would fail 59% of high school juniors in English, 67% of high school juniors in math, 56-62% of third through eighth graders in English, and 61-68% of third through eighth graders in math.

When the majority of Connecticut children are soon told that they are failures, it is not because some absolute measure with objective criteria determined that but because a test was designed to fail them.

By other criteria, Connecticut students are highly successful. For example, since 1992, Connecticut, along with Massachusetts and New Jersey, has had the highest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in the country, and Connecticut ranks 5th in the whole world, outranked by only three countries and the state of Massachusetts, in reading scores of 15 year olds on the international PISA test. And we as a state have accomplished all of that with the highest achievement gap in the country and without excluding our lowest performing students from participating in those tests. as some other competitors do.   Somebody, mostly our kids, are doing something right. Yet most of them will be deemed failures next week.

There is something very wrong with this picture.

I have worked with hundreds of Connecticut English teachers and am confident that they all could design tests that would fail 2/3 of their students. But I don’t know one teacher who would do it. That’s because they are educators and not politicians using manufactured test results to advance political agendas.

Those English teachers and I know how to design rigorous exams. We know how to teach so that all students who do what we ask of them and put out good effort each day in class will demonstrate competency on rigorous assessments. We also know that some of those students will perform in truly exceptional ways on the assessments and know that an occasional student will accomplish even more than we imagined and thrill us beyond our wildest dreams. We teach students the skills and then see how far they go with them. We teach for success.

Last January, I reviewed a midterm English exam with high school students who had just taken it. They had their graded exams on their desks along with a description of the competencies the exam asked of them. Those competencies were:

  • Asking their own complex and multi-layered questions as thoughtful inquiry.
  • Engaging in active and critical reading of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, and films.
  • Thinking analytically as they independently interpreted challenging literary texts.
  • Thinking imaginatively as they made connections between a historical or fictional character and their own lives and creating a persona to write about that connection.
  • Engaging in narrative thinking as they told the story of their own learning.
  • Collaborating with others in order to strengthen their own interpretations and evaluations.
  • Writing essays which demonstrated their ability to revise and strengthen a piece over time as well as writing essays in a timed classroom setting.
  • Using correct grammar and usage.
  • Demonstrating focus, energy, and passion as they prepared for and participated in the two-hour exam.

Those students knew their exam was rigorous. Those students had been taught how to succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. Those students, therefore, did succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. After comparing their exams to the list of competencies, the students ascertained their strengths and determined what they needed to work on in the next semester. And, for sure, these students knew they were not failures.

Not so when the SBAC scores come out. Most students will consider themselves failures. Or, perhaps, the Connecticut State Department of Education will do what the state of Washington did and lower the passing grade to keep educators and parents quiet about the low test scores. Either way, the message of SBAC hurts kids. Either way, SBAC is not about teaching and learning. The truth is: The SBAC test is political monkey business.

It is our job as citizens and parents to tell students the truth about SBAC. It is our job as educators to keep teaching and assessing students in real and honest ways.

Otherwise, we adults are the failures.

Vermont Leads; Connecticut Flounders

Several days after I spoke in front of  the Education Committee of the General Assembly, I read an article (See below) in The Stamford Advocate, written by Wendy Lecker, a civil rights attorney. She explains how Vermont is taking the lead among New England states in opposing the SBAC standardized tests and criticizes the positions on SBAC testing of our governor and the former Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor.

It is two months since the publishing of Lecker’s article, and those in power in Connecticut remain entrenched in SBAC testing.   The current Commissioner of Education, Dianna Roberge Wentzel, is unequivocally  in favor of the Common Core and the aligned SBAC tests. And as recently as Friday, May 8, 2015, Governor Malloy said, ” I think the Smarter Balance test is the right test. A lot of work has gone into developing that and, you know, I think that we are actually seeing success with it being given and making real progress.”  Also, Andy Fleischmann, the Chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, said in a CT Mirror  article published on May 15, 2015, ” The (SBAC) test does show to be robust and valid.”

Given that we are still in the middle of the  first year of testing students (Last year’s tests were just to aid testing companies in creating future test questions.) and there are not yet any results  from the tests, it is difficult to figure out what Governor Malloy means by “seeing success” and “making progress” with the SBAC tests. Also, since the executive director of SBAC, Joseph Willholt, has admitted that there is a “large validity question” with the SBAC tests because no one  has any idea if success on the test equals success in college, it is difficult to figure out what Chairman Fleischmann means  by the test being “robust and valid”.

The elected and appointed officials who oversee education in Connecticut seem committed to continuing down a path that is increasingly recognized as the wrong path for our children. We in Connecticut need a thoughtful investigation, led by experienced educators, into exactly what are the skills that students need and what are authentic ways to assess those skills.   As citizens, educators, and parents, we must demand that our elected and appointed officials be educational policy leaders and not political followers. Connecticut must join Vermont in thoughtful inquiry about real learning and in concern for the welfare of children.

——————————————-

Read what Vermont is doing:

The Truth About The SBACs by Wendy Lecker (March 20, 2015)

A New England state is leading the way on sane testing policy. Unfortunately for us Nutmeggers, that state is Vermont, not Connecticut.

There is a growing national consensus that standardized testing has deleterious effects on education. The National Research Council concluded that test-based accountability under the No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) had “zero to little effect” on achievement. Evidence from around the nation proves the focus on standardized testing has narrowed curricula and resulted in significant losses in learning time. Anxiety is prevalent among public school students, as more and higher stakes are attached to these standardized tests.

There is also a growing realization of what experts have known for years — that the federal government demands that states overuse and misuse standardized tests. Experts know that standardized tests are of limited value, because they are unstable, unreliable and most importantly, do not measure the breadth of skills and experience that are the goals of education. Despite the well-known limitations of standardized tests, federal officials insist test scores be used to rank and rate schools, students and teachers, and impose real-life consequences, including sanctions on schools and possible school closures, firing teachers and even decisions regarding student placement and graduation.

When federal policy conflicts with a solid body of evidence, one would expect our state education officials, those charged with safeguarding the educational rights and welfare of our children, to provide guidance on sound testing policy.

Unfortunately, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top education officials have failed to provide any useful guidance whatsoever. To the contrary, Connecticut officials willingly participate in damaging testing practices. Connecticut rushed to sign on to the federal NCLB waiver in 2012, without analyzing the costs or consequences. As part of the waiver, then Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor committed the state to implementing the common core tests known as the Smarter Balanced, or SBACs. These tests are longer than the CMTs, and must be taken on a computer or tablet, requiring a certain level of computer skill and literacy. Commissioner Pryor also agreed to “cut scores,” proficiency levels, guaranteeing that a vast majority of Connecticut students will fail the new tests. By agreeing to the waiver, Pryor also committed the state to evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores, even though the weight of evidence demonstrates that evaluating teachers on student these test scores is invalid and major organizations such as the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association oppose this practice.

Contrast Connecticut’s complete lack of leadership with Vermont’s. Because the NCLB waiver called for mandates that were contrary to good educational practices, Vermont refused to apply for an NCLB waiver in 2012. In an August 2014 resolution, Vermont’s State Board of Education called on the federal government to “reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality, eschew the use of student test scores in evaluating educators, and allow flexibility that reflects the unique circumstances of all states.”

Last week, Vermont’s State Board of Education unanimously approved a new resolution on the SBAC tests, which gives strong and informed guidance that Connecticut’s education leaders are unwilling to provide.

Vermont’s resolution declares that while the SBAC tests “purport to measure progress towards `college and career readiness . . . the tests have not been externally validated as measuring these important attributes.”

Accordingly, the state board resolved “until empirical studies confirm a sound relationship between performance on the SBAC and critical and valued life outcomes (“college and career-ready”), test results should not be used to make normative and consequential judgments about schools and students.”

Vermont’s state board also resolved that until Vermont has more experience with evidence from the SBACs, “the results of the SBAC assessment will not support reliable and valid inferences about student performance, and thus should not be used as the basis for any consequential purpose.”

Finally, honest education officials admit the SBACs have never been proven to measure “college readiness” or progress toward “college readiness,” and in fact are unreliable to measure student learning. In other words, the foundation upon which the Common Core rests is an artifice, and our children are being subjected to unproven tests. Connecticut districts have been diverting resources and time toward a testing regime without any proof that it would improve our children’s education.

In its thoughtful articulation of its policy stance, Vermont’s educational leaders demonstrated their dedication to the educational welfare of Vermont’s children. It is shameful that Connecticut’s so-called leaders cannot muster the same concern for ours.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.

Say No to SBAC

Connecticut currently mandates the testing of public school students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11 with standardized tests produced by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC). I am opposed to SBAC testing for English language arts because those tests neither measure authentic achievement nor foster students’ growth as readers, writers, and thinkers. Here are 10 reasons to STOP the harmful SBAC testing.

  1. SBAC tests are not rigorous.

The tests do not demand complex thinking. The tests are aligned to the Common Core standards, and the content of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts is inferior content which does not serve to develop students as motivated, engaged readers and effective writers.

  1. SBAC tests are not field-tested for college and career readiness.

No one knows if a good score indicates that a student will be successful in college or careers or if a poor score indicates that a student will struggle in college or careers. According to Joseph Willholt, executive director of SBAC, there is a “large validity question “ about the tests in regard to college readiness.

The SBAC tests do not measure the skills students will need for the global workforce. Those needed skills are: to pose and shape critical questions, to collaborate with others of different cultures and points of view, to communicate effectively orally and in writing, and to use meta-cognitive skills (learning how to learn skills) when facing new problems. Other countries with which we compare ourselves measure those skills because they have standards for them, but we have neither the standards to teach those skills nor the SBAC tests to measure them.

  1. SBAC tests are not developmentally appropriate.

The Common Core English Language Arts Common Standards were not written by educators or those with knowledge of child and adolescent development. They were written by employees of testing companies. The content of the standards and of the SBAC tests is simply what test makers determined could be measured on standardized tests, not what is appropriate for students to learn or what fosters student growth as readers, writers, and thinkers. The National Council of Teachers of English did not endorse the Common Core because of the content of those standards,  the content SBAC tests measure.

  1. SBAC tests are capriciously graded.

The passing grade on the tests is arbitrarily set. On the high school SBAC tests, the passing grade is set such that 70% of students will be labeled as failing the math portion and 60% labeled as failing the English portion. The passing grade on SBAC has been set at what the highly respected National Assessment of Educational Progress considers a B+/ A- performance. SBAC labels all those who score a B or lower as failures.

  1. SBAC tests serve to widen the achievement gap.

The more time students spend preparing for SBAC tests, the less education they will have in authentic literacy learning. Time spent in test prep for SBAC robs students of reading, writing, and collaborating experiences which develop literacy skills. Schools with a history of low test scores spend concentrated time on test prep; schools with traditionally high test scores do not spend time on test prep. Therefore, the gap between those graduates with genuine skills in reading, writing, and collaborating will widen with students of privilege receiving a notably better education than students in schools with historically low test scores.

  1. SBAC tests discriminate against Connecticut’s neediest students.

Since all standardized test scores correlate with family income, many children of poverty will fail. How long will students be motivated to learn and how long will they stay in school if they fail tests in 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade? Not only are impoverished students receiving a poor education with Common Core but their dropout rate will also increase.

  1. SBAC tests narrow the curriculum.

Preparing students for  SBAC tests requires a high school English curriculum that strictly adheres  to the Common Core. That adherence severely limits  what students read, what thinking skills they learn as readers, what students write, and what kind of thinking skills they learn as writers.

Common Core limits the amount of literature read and totally eliminates teaching students the skills of questioning, making text connections to themselves and their world, and analyzing multiple and divergent interpretations  that reading literature offers. None of those skills are assessed on the SBAC test so are not part of the test prep curriculum many schools have adopted.

Similarly, that test prep curriculum  does not develop students as writers and thinkers. High school students are tested only on how they write formulaic arguments, graded either by computers or hourly employees hired through Craig’s List  and not required to have knowledge about the craft of writing.   Therefore, students do not have a curriculum rich in writing experiences  which develop their inductive, explorative,  and narrative thinking – all keys to success in higher education and the workplace.

  1. SBAC tests encourage poor pedagogy.

Because of the high stakes of the SBAC tests, English teachers, especially in schools with a history of low standardized test scores,, prepare students for the test by adhering to the pedagogy prescribed by the Common Core. It, however, is a flawed and discredited pedagogy prevalent in the 1940’s and 50’s and does nor prepare students to think complexly. Not only does that pedagogy severely restrict students’ development as readers and writers, it discourages many of them from even wanting to become readers and writers.

  1. SBAC tests will not “level the playing field”.

Connecticut is already doing well with literacy education.

Connecticut ranks higher than 62 nations in the reading performance of 15 year olds (according to the 2012 PISA- Program of International Student Assessment) and ranks highest in the country in reading performance of high school seniors (according to NAEP, the nation’s most authoritative measure of academic performance in reading and math). If standardized tests are thought to give us useful information, we already have that information.

We know that affluent areas of Connecticut provide an unparalleled education for their students, and we know that where students are impacted by poverty and racism, those students suffer. To level the playing filed, we need to provide for impoverished students what their more privileged peers have been given and standardize opportunities for learning for all students.

  1. SBAC tests teach the wrong values.

The tests teach children that competition, beating out other schools and other students, is what matters instead of the student’s own learning, the student’s own passion for ideas, the student’s own growth as a thinker, a reader, and a writer.

Connecticut educators can design assessments which measure the achievements students really need for their future. I have done considerable work with teachers in both affluent and impoverished districts to design assessments that measure critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, and oral and written communication for students of all abilities. Student achievement always exceeds original expectations when teachers are invited to do this work.

We CAN improve achievement in Connecticut for ALL of our students but not with SBAC tests.

Real learning today to equip students for the future

Arthur Costa, Emeritus Professor of Education at California State University in Sacramento, author of many books and articles about the teaching of thinking, and cofounder of the Institute for Habits of Mind in Westport, CT offers a thoughtful definition of real learning in this four minute video.

He explains that real learning is not about transmitting information from teachers to students but rather about teachers engaging students in learning how to learn. Real learning is about students constructing their own knowledge and creating personal meaning.

With real learning, students can develop the capacity to grow into deep thinking individuals and effective participants in the communities in which they live and work.

This post contains a video. If you cannot see the video click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu2Aqcyp3qo

Some questions to think about…

How do the current Common Core standards foster or impede students creating individual meaning for themselves?

Also, how does SBAC testing foster or impede students from assessing their own learning?

Share your thoughts below in the comment section.