New test scores a needed reality check for Connecticut

It is hard to know what to make of the state’s first results based on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests that, according to the State Department of Education, utilized “significantly tougher questions intended to test real-world skills.”

On the one hand, the results of the tests taken by students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 do not appear impressive. Scores released Friday show that only 39 percent of Connecticut public school students met or exceeded expectations for proficiency on the new standardized math exam. More students met or exceeded expectations in English language arts — 55 percent — but it is still not an impressive number.

State education officials had predicted significantly lower scores. Other states adopting the tougher standards have had the same experience.

Yet the new approach, which aligns testing with the new Common Core State Standards, appears to be providing a more honest assessment of student achievement. In 2013, 83 percent of students were found to have reached proficiency in math, 81 percent in reading, and 84 percent in writing under the final year of the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test standards.

Those pat-on-the-back results did not mesh with the real-life assessments of colleges, which have seen an increase in the need to provide remedial courses to provide students with basic skills, or with reports from business that students coming out of high school are lacking in fundamentals.

Nationally, we know that United States students do not fare well in comparison with students in most other developed nations.

Expectations for our students were being set too low. Parents, educators and administrators should embrace the challenge of enhancing learning so that students develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, can think critically, and graduate from high school ready to apply what they’ve learned in pursuit of higher education or in the workplace.

A challenging standardized test is the best way to assess success and expose areas where improvement is necessary. When individual test scores arrive home, many parents used to seeing their students as high achievers under the prior test will be alarmed to see scores have dropped. They need to be reassured that setting a higher bar and reaching it will serve their children better over the long haul than rejoicing over higher scores on easier tests.

With the first SBAC results, Connecticut has a baseline from which to assess progress going forward.

It remains troubling, however, that resistance remains high among the unions representing our public school teachers. If teachers resist the Common Core standards and the testing meant to measure success in meeting those standards, progress will prove far more difficult.

“Teachers do not think the new statewide SBAC results are an accurate reflection of what Connecticut students know and are able to do. All indications are that SBAC is not only unfair and invalid, but is a failed experiment,” said union President Sheila Cohen in a statement released by the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Change can be difficult. Teachers will be graded on student progress, as measured year-to-year by the new, tougher exams. That can be intimidating, yet it is also necessary to make sure underperforming teachers get the added training they need, or seek other occupations if they cannot improve. SBAC test scores will account for one-quarter of teachers’ evaluations, under the educational reforms pushed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and passed by the legislature.

Getting teachers to buy into the new educational approach is arguably the toughest challenge facing state Education Commissioner Dr. Dianna R. Wentzell, herself a former teacher.

In recent statements, she addressed the contention that the Common Core standards drain teachers of their ability to be creative in the classroom and create a system in which all are “teaching to the test.”

“The best way to support improvement in student performance is through rich, engaging instruction — not by practicing the Smarter Balanced exam,” said Dr. Wentzell. “The only authentic way to improve our performance is to emphasize quality learning time and to personalize this instruction to address individual student needs.”

That’s a gospel the commissioner needs to keep preaching.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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