Part 2: State of Connecticut Educators and Attorney Address Low SBAC Test Participation with Sherman School BoE

Sherman, Conn. (Citizen News) – Last week, the Citizen News reported on the first half of the Sherman Board of Education (BoE) Special Meeting. Although the session only lasted a little over two hours, the information the panel shared with the BoE was extremely in-depth and multifaceted.

State and local education experts were there to answer questions and address concerns posed by the BoE about Common Core and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Testing. This meeting came about because the Sherman School had a low testing participation rate of 53% for students in Grades 3 through 8 who took the SBAC exam this past spring.

In the second half of this session, Moderator and Superintendent Don Fiftal and BoE Members asked the panel a series of questions. This included data collection, confidentiality, and data mining concerns, the test itself and the future of the test, and what the consequences are if the Sherman School continues to have a low participation rate.

The first expert to address the concern about whether or not there is a breach in protecting private student and family information was the Connecticut Department of Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell. She began by saying that all student data resides on private and protected servers in Connecticut, and the State does not share this data with anyone. She added “there is no additional data collected for the purposes of the SBAC assessment that is beyond what was collected for the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT).” In other words, it’s the same data collected and it resides in the Public School Information System (PCIS). Ms. Wentzell gave examples and said they collect information like town, school, name, and birthdate. What’s more, they use only state assigned student identification numbers and they no longer use social security numbers like what they used to do “back in the CMT era”.

In response, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) Deputy Director and Chief Counsel, Patrice McCarthy, stated “in terms of both Federal and State law, Connecticut students have double protection. There is FERPA, the federal right to privacy that protects the personally identifiable information of students. But in Connecticut, we also have specific statutory language…” She then elaborated on how this law states “there needs to be a public school information system to report test data but that system must maintain the confidentiality of the student data.” Regarding who can see these test results, Ms. Wentzell added how Connecticut has not changed the way local districts can access their results. She then discussed how this process works in more detail and who has access at the Sherman School.

Board Member Dorinda Lenihan commented “it sounds like Connecticut has another layer, so maybe you can speak to the Federal portion of it.” She then asked about what happens to Personally Identifiable Information (PII) if students move out of state and whether or not the State allows for permissible data to be shared, like how the Federal government now allows this to happen for the purpose of educational institutions or other kinds of organizations wanting to conduct research studies. Ms. Wentzell assuredly replied “we’re extremely ultraconservative at the Department and even when it’s permissible by law we don’t share our student data”.

On the other hand, Ms. Wentzell said “the school can do whatever the school does, that’s a different thing”. However, the State could if it wanted to if it’s for a research institution “but we don’t do that” she said. Education Connection Director of School Programs and Services, Jonathan Costa, commented how unwise it would be for any local administrator to share data without parental consent. Chairman of the BoE Rowland Hanley replied “we just passed a policy last year that explicitly states that no test will be administered without formal parental consent. The privacy results of that are tactile.” Mr. Costa then gave an example how there are 1,500 children in the State that are in federally funded instructional programs with a research component. He said that 1,500 parents have to sign 1,500 releases in order to participate.

Board Member Joe Keneally asked about data mining and whether or not there should be concern. Ms. Wentzell stated “I think it’s always good to have a relatively high level of concern around information sharing… When you have the State protecting the data I think the SBAC data is one of the safest places for kids data…” In other words, she thinks the data is safe in Connecticut so that it will not become “a mechanism for data mining”.

However, Ms. Wentzell gave a warning. She said “there’s a lot of things out on the internet where you can sign up for a free trial” and how teachers sometimes recommend these offers. “Sign up for this thing and practice the math SBAC” was her example. She then shared her own experience and how she signs up for offers with her 10-year-old. Sometimes, all of a sudden, “we’re getting all kinds of emails trying to sell us things (like math books)” she said.

Ms. Wentzell stressed “there is a lot out there in the EduBiz world but Smarter Balanced is not that. It’s not put out by a testing company. The governing body of Smarter Balanced is a consortium of the States that work together to create the test and it’s administered through the University of California, Los Angeles. We chose, as a consortium of states, we voted, after the development of the test how we’d be organized, and what would be the thing that holds us together after words, and we specifically chose a university to be the hub of that because we didn’t want it to get absorbed by a testing company.” Regarding the security of online database systems, Interim Principal Andrew Schoefer added how on a local level the School is doing its due diligence.

The next question Mr. Fiftal asked had to do with whether or not the children who took this harder test at the Sherman School felt like failures. Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Mary Boylan, stated “we don’t emphasize the scores for Smarter Balance. We try to just prepare the kids to take the test online and prepare them throughout the year by what we teach. What we’re looking for is growth over time and how they perform each year and making sure the vertical movement is there. We encourage them to do their best but we don’t pressure them.”

Mr. Costa added “the adaptability within the grade band does mitigate some of that as well. So the test has the ability within the grade level to adjust questions down or up depending on the answers that students give. So it is more challenging but it’s also more flexible.”

Mr. Fiftal then wanted to know if the students’ performance on the test will one day be unfairly used to evaluate teachers in Connecticut. Ms. Wentzell said “our most recent flexibility request to the Federal government included delaying the requirement to associate student test scores on the state tests with teacher evaluation. We received that flexibility so that is not something that is required in Connecticut now.”

Ms. Wentzell continued to say that doing so is a local decision but it is not something the State requires. However, she pointed out how there is uncertainty if the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be reauthorized. She encouraged people to contact their congressional representatives in Washington D.C. if they are concerned. She also said that if it is one day required then “it will be growth that is focused on, not absolute scores.”

After much discussion on how the Sherman School evaluates teachers, Mr. Fiftal directed his next question to the State panelists regarding “the topic that got us here tonight”. He specifically wanted to know what the consequences are for the Sherman School having an extremely low test participation rate of 53% compared to the rest of the State that’s almost at 96% and Ms. Wentzell replied with humor “you get a visit from the commissioner!”

Ms. Wentzell then answered more seriously “that’s a great question and it’s a question that a lot of states are wrestling with related to the participation and the non-participation that’s become an issue with these new assessments… This year, in Connecticut, fortunately, the way the Federal government looks at it is ‘Connecticut made its participation requirement’ and we exceeded 95% participation, which is considered almost universal participation. They need to know that we are not purposely leaving kids out to make our results look better…”

Ms. Wentzell also discussed in more depth how her department is handling some other low participation rate districts and how they will publish best practices and offer more support and technical assistance in order to make the test participation rate universal. As for the assessments being tied to the funding for the State, Ms. Wentzell said they are and how “all of our districts receive some Federal funding directly.”

Both Ms. Wentzell and Mr. Schoefer discussed how the State and the School are getting the information out to parents and how this special meeting is one way to “take the mystery out of the SBAC Testing”. Mr. Schoefer also stressed how “a score is just one part of a child’s educational portfolio and we truly believe that.”

Board Member Themis Enright then asked the “what if” question regarding what if the Sherman School still has a low participation rate after receiving the State’s guidance and support. Ms. Wentzell said that Title 1 Funds (federal funding) will be at risk “if there is a State pattern of non-participation or if the State could not demonstrate that we had intervened to improve a pattern of non-participation.” She does not think the State is at high risk right now because the overall participation rate for Grades 3 through 8 in the State is really good.

Mr. Fiftal’s next question was “how are the SBAC results that we have, though they are limited, going to be utilized and interpreted by our school and our staff to inform us, and inform our parents, and inform our children as to how they are doing?” Ms. Boylan replied “for the most part, we’ll just be looking at the individual students and their progress, at this point… With all of the other data we have, this is just one little piece of the data.”

Mr. Fiftal then asked about the adaptive test itself and whether or not it’s now more difficult to compare one district to another. Ms. Wentzell pointed out that Connecticut is “a little late to the game on the delivery of computer-adaptive State testing programs” and how “this particular assessment went through five years of piloting.” She also indicated that test professionals and psychometricians, and a lot of Connecticut educators participated as well.

The final question Mr. Fiftal asked the State panelists had to do with providing more details on their recent decision that the SAT will soon substitute for the SBAC in Grade 11.

Ms. Wentzell said the SAT recently went through a redesign and it is now “in alignment with the Common Core State Standards.” Connecticut is one of the first states to “test the water” and Connecticut got an approved waiver for the next three years to use this commercial product, providing the State Board approves it in October, to “use the SAT for our high school accountability assessment.” The terms… The test must be “on a school day” for the score to be counted as the accountability assessment score. The State will pay for it, which also eliminates the cost of transportation. The “school day” test will also have safeguards in place to protect private data. Whereas, if students take the exam on Saturday, then the score will not count for the accountability score, the cost is out of pocket, and there will be no safeguards to protect private information.

Public Comments

The first Sherman School parent to speak was Jason McKinnon. He thanked the Board and the Committee. He also shared his own background as a teacher and an administrator. He is now Assistant Superintendent in New Fairfield Public Schools. He provided testimony as to how much local control there is regarding creating curriculum and designing learning experiences. He also encouraged people to read the standards to see for themselves what they involve. Mr. McKinnon said “the standards are what we teach. I would like to focus on how we teach.”

The next person to speak was a New Milford High School student. She shared her negative experiences with curriculum changes in her school such as with group participation and flipped classroom strategies. Related to this, Ms. Wentzell commended her for public speaking and for taking a stance, and said that her grievances are local choices and are not Common Core requirements. Mr. Hanley then said how they want to know what’s going on in the high schools that have Sherman students attending, like New Milford High School, because it’s important to know about the curriculum the students are learning. Mr. Costa added how the flipped classroom strategy outcome at her school is the opposite of what it was intended to do.

Kate Frey, a Sherman School parent and teacher in Greenwich, thanked the Board for the special meeting and said the information was helpful to her both as a parent and as a teacher. She shared her positive experience. The school she works for has a staff developer for the next three years, thanks to Title 1 Funds. She was hoping to see the Sherman School get this kind of support. Her message to the community was to concentrate on supporting the school and teachers more to teach the standards rather than focusing on the test.

Susan Zeitler, a Sherman School parent who opposes Common Core and SBAC Testing, questioned the privacy of data in the State of Connecticut and stressed how the SBAC is supposed to be an academic exam. Siting her sources, she then asked why the State let 22 private companies and subcontractors of American Institutes for Research (AIR), mostly job placement, career, and recruiting companies, have access to confidential student information, and why parents were not informed. Ms. Wentzell replied and said this Freedom of Information (FOI) request is incorrect and “there are not any 22 private companies that we give any student data to.” Ms. Zeitler also sent to the BoE a white paper and other documents regarding the validity of the SBAC Test.

Katie Berlandi, a Sherman School parent, wanted to know if the SAT, based on the Common Core, will be the same in the private schools like it is for the public schools, and the answer is “yes”. Ms. Berlandi also asked about who supports the SAT. Mr. Costa said “the SAT and all the APs are administered by College Board, which is a privately held, non-profit organization.” She also wanted to know about any influences. Mr. Costa stated “the SAT competes with other national and international tests to be a benchmark of college readiness predictability…. The College Board, as an organization, is concerned about its own future, and wanted to make sure that its test aligned with internationally benchmarked standards so that it could be seen as an increasingly competitive test against all of the other tests it competes with in that space.” In other words, College Board made the decision to align their test with Common Core so they could keep up with these standards. As for the ACT test, Ms. Wentzell said they change a little each year and their alignment is evolving.

Near the end of the meeting, Ms. Boylan recapped some of the investments made at the Sherman School to support the teachers and students. They have invested in literacy and math specialists, teacher training, intervention teachers, tutors, and paraprofessionals.

Link to the Presentation: http://devos.shermanschool.com/show?video=c32380bae949&apg=9d720c22

Resources: http://www.corestandards.org and http://www.sde.ct.gov

Article and Photo by Alicia Sakal, Citizen News Journalist, October 7th Edition.

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