By Jeffrey Villar, Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform
I have my annual physical this week. It’s not something I look forward to, and I particularly dislike the associated blood test. Nonetheless, the test provides my doctor and me with important information about my health, and we use that data to make decisions that help me live a healthier life. It makes me think: there are some interesting parallels to the standardized assessment that my own children, and all Connecticut children in grades 3-8 and 11, take annually. This year’s Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test was developed by a consortium of representatives from 22 states, including Connecticut. In a way, this test is similar to my annual blood test in that it was scientifically constructed to measure information with reliability and comparability.
Not only am I a parent to six children, but I’m also an educator who spent two decades working in Connecticut’s public schools, including having served as the superintendent of two districts.
I appreciate the value of the SBAC test because I know firsthand that grades don’t provide parents with enough information. In my experience within the public education system, grading practices from teacher to teacher and school to school vary enormously. That’s why I rely upon standardized assessments to accurately understand where my own children stand. If any of my children are behind in school, knowing that early is an opportunity; it gives me time to prepare them before they graduate high school, rather than finding out they’re behind once they’re enrolled in expensive remedial classes in college.
The comparability of the data among students, schools, and districts is also important. Since I am divorced, my children attend schools in two different towns, and I want to be sure that both school systems are preparing them equally for the future. Absent a comparable measure such as the SBAC, it would be hard for me to know.
Despite these benefits, many parents are still concerned about over-testing. Some expend an incredible amount of energy trying to opt their children out of the SBAC. I want to alert these parents to the important benefits of having access to standardized assessment data. Also, my unsolicited advice to concerned parents is this: consider speaking with a principal about your district’s high school graduation requirements. In your earnest efforts to do what is right for your children, you may be inadvertently creating problems; under Connecticut law, districts are generally required to incorporate test results into graduation requirements. There are some exceptions, but you should confirm that your children can still graduate if they miss the test.
Connecticut has used annual standardized assessments since 1984. The SBAC simply replaces the old Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and takes about the same amount of time to complete. (Because the SBAC is a computerized test that requires access to devices, districts are provided with larger testing windows to make the administration of the test more flexible. However, the amount of time that each individual student spends on testing remains the same under the SBAC as it was under the CMT.)
So where do the claims about over-testing come from?
Some parents have inadvertently pushed their children into more testing by choosing to enroll them in the Advanced Placement (AP) courses that impress the most prestigious colleges and universities. It’s hard to argue against demonstrating mastery in these advanced courses. However, when stacked on top of SAT and ACT tests in high school, these additional exams may contribute to the notion that there’s too much testing these days.
It’s also possible that when parents talk about schools over-testing their kids, they’re referring to their districts “prepping” kids for the state test. This ill-fated attempt to quickly improve testing results simply doesn’t work, and it does not come from a faulty state-testing system.
Seasoned educators know that the best ways to prepare children to succeed on tests are to engage them in a curriculum that is challenging, to give teachers enough time and resources, and to encourage students to do their best. Somewhat similarly, there is little that I can do to prepare for the blood test at my annual physical in the short term. Only long-term efforts at exercising regularly and eating well will help me pass the test.