Teachers union calls for elimination of Smarter Balanced Test

The state's largest teachers' union called out Thursday for the elimination of the state's new standardized test — the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

Donald E. Williams, Jr., the former legislative leader who now works for the Connecticut Education Association, said the computerized Smarter Balanced test "provides no useful feedback to teachers about their students, and has disrupted schools throughout the state."

He said the test is "not valid, reliable or fair."

Sheila Cohen, president of the union, said the test is not "developmentally appropriate or fair for students, especially those who are young, in special education or English-language learner programs, come from homes without regular computer access, or from economically disadvantaged school districts."

The recently-passed federal Every Student Succeeds Act — the successor to No Child Left Behind — provides the state with new flexibility and the opportunity to consider a different way of assessing students performance, Williams said.

Williams said that ideally, the education association would like to see the state pursue "innovation slots" that will available to seven states under the new legislation and will enable those states to design a new form of assessment that would not be a standardized test.

Instead, he said, that new method of assessment could rely on portfolios of classroom work, or essays or projects that might span an entire year.

Failing that possibility, Williams said the CEA would like to work with a vendor to create a new standardized test that is better aligned with classroom learning and does not pose some of the technological challenges presented by Smarter Balanced.

Williams said it's probably too late to switch to a new test for the current school year — testing usually begins in March — the union would hope to see Smarter Balanced gone by next year.

He noted that many states have already abandoned Smarter Balanced in favor of their own locally-designed standardized test.

Advocates for the Smarter Balanced test lashed back quickly against the union's plea, with Jennifer Alexander, the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now labeling it "a knee jerk reaction to a new system. Their proposal is that we move away from [Smarter Balanced] when we've only just begun and we've already invested millions into its implementation. It's not only educationally unsound, but financially irresponsible."

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell said the department will be reviewing CEA's proposal. "Discussion is important, as is collaboration," Wentzell said. "We all want the same thing: for our kids to succeed and reach their potential. Just as classroom tests are important tools to help inform educators' practice in the classroom, statewide assessments are essential to ensuring that we are delivering on our promise to all our children."

Annie Irvine, a third grade teacher from East Hartford said test preparation for Smarter Balanced takes away too much "precious instructional time."

She said she spends hours teaching students how to transfer reading skills to a computer and "more time coaching, cajoling, and convincing students that they can sustain enough stamina to attempt long and dry reading passages that they will see. All while trying to teach them how to type, which they can't do in grade 2 because their fingers are too short."

Ted Goerner, a West Hartford teacher, said he is concerned about the disparity in testing conditions that students experience if they take the test on a Chrome book, compared to taking it on a desk top computer.

The tininess of a Chrome book screen makes it much more difficult to read and navigate the test, compared to a much larger desk top screen. "If you can't control these variables, you can't compare valid comparisons over time."

Juanita Bush Harris, a Danbury guidance counselor said that students who are learning English are at a major disadvantage taking the test. Those students are transitioning into Connecticut and arrive with widely varying skill levels, she said, and sometimes have no formal education.

She said she seen students exhibiting "excessive levels of distress, insecurity and anxiety" on taking the test.

Harris said, "I say to you that the [Smarter Balanced] may be invalid, certainly is harmful and we need to look and see if it is discriminatory."

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