Part 1: State of Connecticut Educators and Attorney Address Low SBAC Test Participation with Sherman School BoE

Sherman, Conn. (Citizen News) –  The Sherman Board of Education (BoE) recently held a special meeting with state and local education experts to address the low 53% participation rate for students in Grades 3 through 8 who recently took the Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) exam this past spring.

Over 40 educators and parents were in attendance. The BoE presented questions and concerns to the panel. Near the end of the two hour meeting, the floor opened up for public comments. Proponents and opponents then spoke about their points or concerns and asked the panel questions as well.

The panelists from the State were Connecticut Department of Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) Deputy Director and Chief Counsel Patrice McCarthy, and Education Connection Director of School Programs and Services Jonathan Costa. From the Sherman School was Interim Principal Andrew Schoefer, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Boylan, and Language Arts Teacher Mary McEvoy.

The Moderator was Superintendent Don Fiftal. The intent of the meeting was for the BoE to bring together experts on the frontline about the Connecticut Common Core Standards and the SBAC Assessments.

Mr. Fiftal’s opening comments began with sharing from his own career how he started out as a high school English teacher in 1968. After 14 years of teaching, he then served in administrative roles and is now a part-time superintendent. Through the years, Mr. Fiftal said he can relate and attest to what the central issue is regarding standards and assessments. “What is it that students need to know and do, and how will we know the level at which they can do it and know it?”

Mr. Fiftal explained how the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) have been pioneers in addressing this question. Generations ago CSDE developed the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and this was when the evolution of standards and testing began. The goal was to make sure that children could “perform at optimal levels for themselves and compete with students anywhere in this country or in this world.” He believes the State now has the highest level of standards with the Common Core Standards that are now in alignment with the SBAC, which helps to measure what students learn and know.

Mr. Fiftal added that up until this past year the Sherman School always had a high level of testing participation. Now, this has changed because the community and parents found themselves torn. As a result, only 53% of the Sherman School students took the test compared to approximately 96% who took the test in the State of Connecticut.

The first question Mr. Fiftal asked the panel concerned the origin of the Connecticut Common Core Standards and whether or not non-educators are pushing a social agenda.

Ms. Wentzell stated how Connecticut, since 1998, has a proud tradition in developing content standards / framework. She also said how most of the content standards underwent a revision in 2005 and she was a participant in the English Language Arts (ELA) revision for Grade 6. In retrospect, she said two things could have been done differently. First, they should have talked to the Grade 5 and Grade 7 teacher committees to see how rigorous their standards were because they were different. Secondly, she saw the consequence of the States individually developing their own standards because “they did not translate across state lines…”

In 2009 and 2010 the voluntary Common Core State Standards for ELA and Math were adopted. She said the testing component helps to compare Connecticut children to children in other states and beyond. Ms. Wentzell added how Connecticut has content standards in all subject areas; not just ELA and Math. Since February, Social Studies is the newest standard added.

Regarding the possibility of a social agenda, Mr. Costa commented that Common Core is really just an evolution of standards and it is not what some call a revolution in standards. He said that 91% of ELA and 83% of Math are already in alignment with Common Core and “it’s a unique American challenge to graduate every child with the skills they need to be successful in life, learning, and work beyond school.” He added “we are unique in the Western world, in fact, the industrialized world, that we have accepted this challenge for all students… Our European counterparts have a great sorting out that happens in middle school…” He then elaborated on how we are different because, in America, children get to choose their own futures.

As for Connecticut’s participation in the SBAC consortium, Chairman Rowland Hanley asked Ms. Wentzell to explain this in more detail. She said that “ultimately, state standards are a promise, as a state, of what kids will get to learn while they’re in our schools… Checking on that promise is a state assessment program.”

Ms. Wentzell then stated that Connecticut chose the SBAC consortium that is aligned with Common Core instead of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium because it was very similar to the CMT approach. “There were much more open ended questions, ways for kids to apply their learning, things we really cared about.”

Ms. Wentzell also said the two lead developers on the team for the SBAC ELA and Math are Connecticut State Department of Education staffers and they are the same professionals that wrote the test questions for the CMT and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) so that’s why they are similar.

Ms. Wentzell answered the next question about whether or not the standards are age appropriate. She said there was already a lot of alignment between the new standards and the former Connecticut standards and “where they are better is that they’re more specific on foundations of reading…” However, she said they assumed that the children could learn to decode. As with anything new, she stated there’s the risk of “doing it in a less than artful way” and that “it takes time for the teachers to incorporate the new standards into their repertoire.”

Mr. Costa added how “the standards are just goals for performance” and if a local district adopts a new instructional program or teaching strategy then it could be developmentally inappropriate if it is applied incorrectly. In other words, the local curriculum and instructional practices are not dictated by the standards. “There is no such dictation,” he stated firmly.

Mr. Fiftal then asked a straightforward question “can local districts choose not to participate in SBAC”? Ms. McCarthy replied “there is no legal requirement that school districts implement Common Core standards. The vast majority of educators and school boards in Connecticut have found those standards are appropriate and, in fact, are utilizing them.” Regarding the testing requirements, she said there is a Federal requirement for testing. Plus, in Connecticut, “there is preexisting state law that requires each child shall take a statewide mastery examination approved by the State Board of Education; and at this point, SBAC is the approved exam.” She stressed how the testing requirement remains in place in Connecticut.

Ms. Wentzell elaborated on the difference between the standards and the assessment. “The standards [a set of skills] are the guidance that our State Board provides to all of the local districts around what promises we’ve made to all of our kids and their families, ‘we’ as a State. Communities decide how they’ll meet that promise.” She also said there is no state curriculum in Connecticut. In other words, curriculum is determined locally by the districts. However, the State Board tries “to support districts with examples of curriculum and units…” In terms of the assessment, she said “it’s entirely a different story… Universal participation is the law, both State and Federal law, and it’s for a really good reason. Because without universal participation we really don’t know if we are equally good at making good on our promise everywhere and for all kids.” She continued to say how education is a huge civil rights issue and they want to be sure that every child in Connecticut has an equal chance to learn. The assessment helps to tell them that.

Board Member Dorinda Lenihan then asked the panel if they are going to improve accommodations for children with IEPs [Individualized Education Programs] because her child is visually impaired and she found the exam unacceptable for him. She also thinks that less computer savvy children may have difficulty with the computerized exam.

Ms. Wentzell replied by saying they field tested and surveyed this very concern and found that the younger the children are, the more positive they were about taking tests on the computer. Plus, the youngest students outperformed the older students on the assessment itself.

Regarding SBAC test accommodations for children with IEPs, Ms. Wentzell said Connecticut does accommodate and, if requested, the test comes in brail or large print and the visually impaired children can access it online. As for other accommodations, the test is available in many different languages and American Sign Language is available on the screen. Connecticut also provides live signing whereas some states do not.

Mr. Costa added how the most requested accommodation was more time to take the test. He said all children can now take as long as they need to finish because the SBAC is untimed. He finds this to be a better approach to testing.

Ms. McEvoy offered her testimonial as a Grade 6 teacher and shared how in the beginning the children were apprehensive about learning new technology, like with the Chromebooks. She said the technology and staff support was fantastic, and when it was time for the children to take the test, the transformation was amazing. She also said not one student complained about how to use the tools or the test.

Mr. Schoefer answered the next question about instructional impact. From a local perspective, he said there are now more rigorous and challenging, yet attainable, standards and he is pleased with the change.

As for “teaching to the test” that has drawn some criticism, Mr. Costa said that “as long as the test matters to somebody, people will always teach to the test…” He stressed how the focus should be whether or not it is a good test. If it’s a good test of skill then teaching to the test is a positive. He emphasized “the better the test, the better the alignment of instruction is with goal and outcome.” Ms. Boylan related well to what Mr. Costa said and added “the test is one small part of that.”

From a legal standpoint, Mr. Fiftal wanted to know what the panelists had to say about whether or not the Federal government is intruding on Connecticut and local control when it comes to standards and testing. Ms. McCarthy was the first to answer and reiterated that our State has local control. “There is still so much local choice about choosing curriculum, about choosing instructional methodology that it is not a top-down system. Certainly there are areas where the Federal government provides grants to states and to individual school districts. It expects certain things in return. They expect there to be a legitimate testing program in place. But in terms of day-to-day, unit-to-unit instruction you’ve heard how that plays out in Sherman and that’s true in the other 165 districts in the State.”

Ms. Wentzell agreed with Ms. McCarthy and elaborated on how local control and choice is a great strength in Connecticut. She also pointed out how some states do not give the opportunity to make community decisions. She said that her department is only available for guidance and support and they don’t check what’s going on in local districts like inspecting curriculum and units. This is the reason why they need an indicator, like a test.

As for what’s going on at the Federal level, Mr. Costa pointed out how the true change happened in 2001 with No Child Left Behind. He recapped how, for over 20 years, every administration has had “a desire at every Federal level to connect money with results for evidence” and “this is a common Federal funding practice” so this is nothing new.

Board Member Kasey Diotte wanted to know what the Connecticut interventions are if they are not making local decisions like choosing curriculum and textbooks. Ms. Wentzell said that, in the 30 alliance districts, support can include additional funding that’s contingent upon a plan and part of this has to do with assessment outcomes. She said the plans are local, but they help with goals and agree on improvement strategies, if needed, then funding happens. Both Ms. Enright and Ms. McEvoy then shared detailed examples with the State panelists regarding how local control works at the Sherman School.

Article and Photo by Alicia Sakal, Citizen News Journalist, September 30th Edition.