SCHOOLS: Test-taking fills much of students' life
Ohanian comment: The Feds' 11,000 attorneys tell Connecticut's 11, "Give a shorter, cheaper, multiple-choice test." The Feds don't care if the test is any good; all they care about is going through the motions of testing.
By Macklin Reid
All over Ridgefield, all over Connecticut, all over the nation, children are taking tests.
In the elementary and middle schools, children are taking the Connecticut Mastery Tests, given this year to virtually every child in grades three through eight under the dictates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And in the high school, 10th graders are taking the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT).
That’s about 2,900 Ridgefield students taking standardized tests, starting last week.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act, passed four years ago, requires nationwide annual testing of students in areas like math and reading. Since Connecticut already had students taking tougher tests than what the federal law spells out, the big change required is to give those tests more frequently — every year, rather than every other year.
It’s a big increase to schools’ testing load. The Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) had been given in grades four, six and eight. Starting this year, students take it in grades three through eight.
“The CMT in grade K-8 has grown through increased enrollment and a doubling of the state testing program,” Assistant Superintendent Michael Hibbard said in a report discussed at the board’s last meeting. “Resources to support these new requirements are needed.”
Ridgefield administrators worry that with a lot more testing, students will spend less time learning. Dr. Hibbard outlined his concerns in an e-mail this week.
“The CMT and CAPT were good tests for these kinds of tests and they helped improve teaching and learning. We do not need to add more tests,” he said.
“...Students need practice and experience with the exact format and answer forms used on the CMT and CAPT, and this takes time. So, the time spent in ‘sharpening’ knowledge and process skills takes away from instructional time.”
It’s also takes up staff time.
“We are looking for space to use to receive, secure and process about 200 boxes of testing materials for the CMT in March,” Dr. Hibbard told the board. “...The first state-level meeting on the exceedingly detailed process will be held in early February. Six Ridgefield staff will spend one day at this meeting.
“Following this meeting, a district-level meeting involving at least 12 staff will be held to be sure that everyone knows the new extremely complex rules and procedures.”
He said later, “A lot of people spend a lot time for six weeks. I do not have an estimate of hours and dollars.”
Despite concerns that the increase in testing required by No Child Left Behind is excessive, the schools do expect to get valuable information from the tests. They might prefer to have a broader range of assessments, every other year, rather than the same areas tested every single year.
“The NCLB testing will assess student performance in reading, some forms of writing, math including some forms of problem-solving, and some aspects of science content and process,” Dr. Hibbard wrote in his Feb. 27 report to the board.
“Although greatly expanded, the NCLB testing does not come near to assessing all the important aspects of student performance in the Ridgefield public schools,” he said. “We continue to need to be better at assessing the performance of our students in such areas as reading non-fiction, writing process, literature, social studies, science, language, research, and the arts.”
School administrators were troubled by the state’s announcement two weeks ago that 355 students statewide had wrong test scores reported on the CAPT taken last year. The problem was said to be the result of errors by the test-scoring firm, which was fined by the state.
“The problem involved most of the high schools in Connecticut,” Dr. Hibbard reported to the board. “Only two students were affected at RHS and their scores in overall reading actually were higher.
“This is the second year in a row there have been significant errors, which are the responsibly of the test-scoring company,” he said. “These problems cause us concern and affect our sense of the validity of the test scores.”
Superintendent Kenneth Freeston told board members that there were only a few firms nationwide that offer test-scoring services. The State of Connecticut is switching vendors for the third time in three years, he said. With the testing load mushrooming nationwide as the result of the federal ”No Child” law, he said, scoring will likely to get worse.
“The CAPT is a small test by one little state, and we embark this month on national testing,” Dr. Freeston said.
With the vast increase in testing, and CMTs now given in March rather than the fall, school administrators are also concerned that they will not get the results back in time make use of them over the summer. That’s when administrators traditionally look closely at what test scores say about how curriculum and instruction in the schools could be improved.
“We really need the data back in mid-June so that we can use the time we have in the summer to work as a PK-12 team to analyze our strengths and weaknesses and make very specific district-level and school-level plans to improve teaching and learning,” Dr. Hibbard said. “Getting the data back in late August or September makes the whole data-driven decision-making process much, much more difficult.”
Dr. Freeston updated the board on Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s court challenge to the federal No Child Left Behind law. Mr. Blumenthal argues that the law’s requirements are an excessive financial burden imposed on the state by the federal government — yes, an “unfunded mandate.”
Dr. Freeston thought the response by the federal government’s lawyers was revealing: “If we gave a smaller multiple-choice test, it wouldn’t cost us more — so, it’s Connecticut’s choice.”
Of course, a smaller multiple-choice test given annually would probably reveal less about students’ actual learning than Connecticut’s previous program of giving the more rigorous CMTs every other year.
“It’s a ludicrous response from the federal government’s 11,000 attorneys working against Blumenthal’s 11,” Dr. Freeston said.
Board members wondered about the school districts and even whole states that they’ve heard were refusing to participate in the federal testing program.
“With No Child Left Behind, we have to do it to get federal aid,” said board member Katherine Fischer.
Some towns in Connecticut have decided not to take part in the tests.
“There are three districts — I know Cheshire is one — who said they’re not going to do No Child Left Behind,” Dr. Freeston said.
“There are some districts that are going to opt out. They’re not going to go for the federal money,” said Patrick Higgans, the teacher union’s representative at board meetings.
It’s a financial decision.
“A district like Ridgefield, Wilton, Weston could do that,” he said. For a less wealthy town “it’s not an option,” he said.
“I’d like to see what kind of federal money we’re talking about, just to have it,” said Maureen Kozlark.
School Business Manager Jo-Ann Keating said this week that Ridgefield receives about $900,000 a year in federal money, about $800,000 of that affiliated with special education programs.
Probably all of that money would be at risk if the system refused to meet No Child Left Behind standards.
“If we’re not in compliance with the federal law, it would probably result in us losing the federal grant,” Dr. Keating said.
The board had some debate of the No Child Left Behind law’s national implications.
“In defense of the federal government I just want to say, conceptually, there has to be a justification for some of these concepts,” said Jeffrey Gorelick.
“...It may seem absurd in Fairfield County, but if you apply it in some area of Mississippi, or Texas...”
“There are reasons for it,” said Bob Cox. The principal goal of the testing was “the idea of creating accountability,” he said.
But Mr. Cox doubted No Child Left Behind would do much to really improve education, since the federal government wasn’t following through with money to take on deficiencies revealed by the testing.
“It’s not addressing the problem,” he said.
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES