By Gregory Hladky
HARTFORD – Connecticut’s largest teachers organization is calling for the elimination of major standardized testing, which the state had planned to use as part of teacher and school performance evaluation. The organization wants to replace it with more flexible “progress testing.”
Officials of the Connecticut Education Association said Monday they commissioned a survey that shows broad public support for placing more emphasis on classroom learning and less on time-consuming standardized tests.
The CEA, which has about 43,000 members, is urging the General Assembly to reform standardized testing. The group is launching a two-week, $250,000 TV ad campaign to encourage public support.
“Over-testing has overtaken our schools,” said CEA President Sheila Cohen, a teacher in Orange. “Over-testing is overwhelming our students.” Cohen said schools and teachers shouldn’t be evaluated simply on how students perform on “high stakes” standardized tests.
Cohen said her organization’s proposal is to phase out the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium standardized testing program that is intended to measure student, teacher and school performance.
“Many of the issues raised [by the CEA proposal] are based on steps the state is already taking,” said Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for the State Board of Education. Donnelly said those include “reducing burdensome testing, developing holistic criteria to improve learning and develop teachers.”
“It’s important to remember these are federally mandated exams,” Donnelly added. “Without a singular, objective statewide assessment, parents, educators and policymakers would be unable to compare performance of students and specific underserved groups of students across the state.”
The amount of time Connecticut students spend on preparing for and taking standardized tests has come in for criticism from educators, parents and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. But the state’s new testing program also has its defenders.
Jeffrey Villar is executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a nonprofit organization backed by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and funded in part by Connecticut corporations, which has a goal of closing the achievement gap between students in wealthier suburban schools and kids in poor urban districts. Villar said the proposal to eliminate the current testing “fails to acknowledge the quality of the standardized testing.” He said the current test has been proven “to be accurate and reliable.”
Villar said the CEA’s proposal is clearly aimed at protecting teachers. “The CEA exists for the purpose of protecting its members,” Villar said.
“It is clear that both parents and policymakers need consistent and reliable information on how students are doing,” said Jennifer Alexander, CEO of the school reform group ConnCan.
“That is what the Smarter Balanced assessment is designed to do, and I think we should stay the course,” Alexander said.
The co-chairwoman of the legislature’s education committee, Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, said she is looking forward to see the details of the CEA’s proposal. “I am concerned about the amount of testing … the amount of time that it is taking away from learning,” Slossberg said.
To back up their call for testing reforms, CEA officials cited a poll of 500 likely Connecticut voters conducted in January. Cohen said the survey showed that 67 percent agreed that students take too many standardized tests, and 74 percent believe too much time is being taken away from classroom learning.
The CEA’s proposal would phase out Connecticut’s newly installed Smarter Balance test. The computerized exam program was tested last year and is designed to replace the Connecticut Mastery Test.
State and federal laws require annual tests for grades 3-8, and one statewide test during high school. School districts have authority to select and administer many of the exams, according to state officials.
In place of the current testing, the CEA is proposing what its officials describe as a fairer and more accurate system for “school accountability” and teacher performance. The CEA’s plan would reduce the emphasis on test scores and instead focus more on “progress tests” to let teachers know how students are doing and what they need. The plan would place greater focus on assessing things like collaboration and communication skills and “social and civic engagement.”
“If we want to help our students, then the critical objective is to eliminate the unnecessary, duplicative tests that have overtaken our schools,” said Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the CEA. “Phasing out the SBAC and using progress tests is best for our students.”
Malloy has also called for reducing the amount of time students spend preparing for and taking standardized tests. He said he wanted to find ways to lessen the test-taking pressures on 11th graders, student’s he called “our most over-tested.”
Villar said he agrees with the CEA that “some schools have gone overboard with having activities … they feel prepare kids for the standardized tests.” He said the idea of “teaching to a test” doesn’t work, and that schools and teachers would do far better to focus on teaching the core curriculum.
But Villar said both standardized tests and the in-classroom “progress tests” the CEA is advocating are needed to evaluate how students, teachers and schools are performing.
On Monday, the state Department of Education announced it was awarding $428,000 in grants to help 48 school districts find ways to reduce the amount of time students spend preparing and taking standardized tests.
“Tests are important tools in the teaching and learning toolbox that helps track student progress toward success in colleges and careers,” Malloy said in a press release on the new grants. “But it’s also important to ensure that the already crowded schedules of our students are not filled up with too many tests.”
State officials said the grants are intended to help school officials analyze their tests to make sure they’re not including unnecessary or duplicative exams.
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