As officials scramble to raise New Haven students’ low state test scores, some teachers are calling for more support and questioning whether the exams are the best measure of student success.
Teachers, parents and community members criticized the district for what some called a drastic response to students’ low Common Core-aligned exam scores at a recent meeting of the “Educators’ Collective,” held at Fair Haven Public Library on Grand Avenue.
In part as a response to the low scores, the mayor took over as Board of Education president and launched a campaign to reform educational policies in the district.
The rumblings in New Haven coincide with a nationwide backlash against test mania, which has now reached the White House. Outgoing federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the architect of testing-based school reforms, last week reversed course and called for a cap on standardized assessments that would require kids to spend no more than 2 percent of classroom time taking tests.
It appears that the school-testing pendulum is swinging back from an emphasis on testing and more testing. Duncan had previously championed a national movement to use more high-stakes testing to evaluate not just student achievement but teacher and individual schoolwide success as well, with financial consequences for low scores. The reasoning behind that movement is that schools should meet high standards for all students, and that tests provide the best yardsticks of achievement, helping identify students’ weaknesses for educators to address. Charter schools in particular have embraced a focus on testing.
Meanwhile, some parents nationwide, often in suburban districts, have organized “opt-out” drives keeping their children home on test days. Some teachers have complained that they spend too much time “teaching to the test” and not providing a less-pressured, more meaningful education.
In August, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a supporter of charter schools and test-based reforms, announced that the state has received a federal waiver to allow high-school students to take the SAT as a substitute for Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).
In New Haven, members of the educators’ collective aim to convince the Board of Ed to hold off on more testing-based reforms in the schools.
District and city leaders have called the SBAC test results “unacceptable” and are working on a campaign to raise them for next year. Teachers union leaders Dave Cicarella and Tom Burns warned district leaders at a recent Board of Ed meeting not to make drastic decisions based on the scores alone.
“Every time we have a new test, there’s a learning curve,” Cicarella said. “No one is happy with the test scores, but to make all of our decisions based off the test scores” is a bad idea.
“There’s a disconnect and feedback loop between the results of the tests and how they’re presented to the public through the Board of Ed,” Leslie Blatteau (pictured), a social studies teacher at Metropolitan Business Academy, said at the recent collective meeting. Blatteau is one of the organizers of the group, which started up a few years ago with a stated mission to “resist the attack on public education by empowering our communities to take back our schools” in the face of “profit-oriented school reform.”
District leaders are focusing “a lot of test scores” without evidence showing “SBAC indicates college and career readiness,” she said.
Metro science teacher Chris Willems said the proposed 2 percent national cap on testing is “not much of a reduction,” and still a “significant amount of testing.” Teachers still have to spend classroom time preparing students to take the tests “in order to try to achieve the kind of scores they would like,” he said.
Willems called it “horrifying” that district leaders “jumped on the scores and treated them as gospel,” especially because they knew students would do poorly with a more rigorous exam.
The state Department of Education released scores at the end of August showing that 29.1 percent of New Haven students are on track for literacy and 13.5 percent are on track for math, compared to 55.4 percent and 39.1 percent statewide. Students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 spent five weeks taking various parts of the test this past May.
Mayor Toni Harp cited the scores as the main reason she took over as president of the Board of Ed—which critics have called a “conflict of interest.” Earlier this month, she rolled out a 10-point plan to improve student success, including pushes to fill gaps in the reading curriculum, buy computers for each classroom and implement targeted interventions at the lowest-scoring schools.
Superintendent Garth Harries said he has been clear with administrators that SBAC scores are just “an important starting point” and that student progress is measured by “far more than one set of numbers.”
At the same time, the low scores “in aggregate are not acceptable,” he said. The district is working on a plan to prepare students for the next round of the exam, including by replacing mid-year assessments that are unhelpful for taking the SBAC. He said teachers will get professional development opportunities to “unpack and understand” the results of the standardized test.
Cicarella, president of the teachers union, said the New Haven teachers no longer shut down instruction to focus on test prep before state assessments. “There is some review of format to make sure kids are familiar with the structure” but no content prep, he said.
Students can take up to seven to nine hours to complete all parts of the SBAC. Preparation times varies by school and grade.
Career High School biology teacher Terence McTague (pictured) said he plans to start attending Board of Ed meetings to share positive experiences from his classroom and ask the mayor, “What drove the decision to create a 10-point plan?” If the mayor responds saying it was a reaction to low SBAC scores, McTague said, he will return to the next board meeting to ask for more details.
“How can we put our faith in a plan based on something we don’t know anything about?” he said.
Blatteau called the mayor’s plan a “deficit model” built on students’ weaknesses instead of highlighting their skills and potential for success. And teachers need more context and support to respond to the scores, instead of “blanket perceptions that students are failing.”
Harries said the plan encompasses many initiatives already being developed, such as increasing student access to technology and using restorative justice to reduce suspensions and expulsions.
“The plans we are developing are deeply informed by teachers” and will engage teacher leaders, he said.
Darnell Goldson, a candidate for the Board of Education, called the mayor’s 10-point initiative a “starting point,” instead of a plan, since teachers were not involved in the process of developing it.
“I’d like to hear recommendations and suggestions for alternatives to figuring out” whether students are learning, he said at the Educators’ Collective meeting.
The collective posts upcoming meetings on its Facebook page.