Latest Test Scores May Not Add Up To Much

Melissa Bailey File PhotoThird graders’ test scores plummeted. Scores at a turnaround high school went up. That might mean a lot—or, educators suggested, it just as likely might not.

Those developments emerged Tuesday, as the state released a new batch standardized test scores for public elementary, middle and high schools—high-stakes statistics often used to judge and reward or punish teachers and school systems.

Scores dropped for most New Haven K-8 schools, following a statewide trend, while high schools showed “solid” performance, said Superintendent Garth Harries. Harries shared the results of the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT) for grades 3 to 8 and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) for high school sophomores at a press briefing at 54 Meadow St. Tuesday.

As the scores emerged, so did questions surrounding the relevancy of the tests, for several reasons: Schools are overhauling the way they teach kids, so these legacy tests are no longer aligned with the way kids are taught. High school scores don’t show growth of individual kids. Some of the sample sets are too small to have statistical relevance upon which to draw conclusions. And the schools plan to eliminate the CMT and CAPT next year anyway, forcing the district to reset its goals for improvement on the tests.

Click here to view the state’s database of test results. Click here to read a breakdown of the results, prepared by the Board of Ed.


Scores for K-8 schools weren’t rosy.

Kids in grades 3 to 8 are tested every March on math, reading and writing; those in grades 5 and 8 are also tested on science. Scores are measured by the number of kids scoring “at goal,” which means at grade level; and “proficient,” a lower standard.

The number of kids scoring at “goal” across all subjects and all grade levels dropped from 42.2 to 40.0 percent. The number scoring “proficient” also fell from 66.5 to 64.1 percent.

Much of the decline stemmed from the 3rd grade, especially in math, where 29.9 percent of kids rated “at goal” on the CMT, down from 41.7 percent the previous year.

That’s no surprise, given the statewide results. Third-grade math scores showed the biggest declines statewide: The number of 3rd-graders statewide scoring at “goal” in math dropped by 5.2 percent, from 66.8 to 61.6 percent.

Harries and Stefan Pryor, the state education commissioner, gave the same explanation for the decline: The historic tests no longer fit with the new way of teaching that’s spreading across the country, as schools adapt to a new set of national standards called the Common Core. The Common Core State Standards, which will take effect in the 2014-15 school year, call for teaching kids fewer subjects with more rigor. Schools have already adjusted their teaching to this new model, but the tests haven’t yet caught up.

“It is increasingly apparent that our legacy tests are out of sync with the new Common Core standards,” said Pryor.

New Haven Teachers union President Dave Cicarella agreed. The test declines are “not that worrisome,” he said, because “we’re still using a test that doesn’t match our instruction.” He said scores also dipped years ago, when schools shifted to the current tests from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

Common Core is bringing a major shift in “what students learn and when they learn it,” Harries said.

For example, Harries said, kids in New Haven used to touch briefly on many math topics in 3rd grade, including probability and statistics. Now they’ve switched to Singapore Math, in which they learn fewer subjects with more depth. Now students (like Nilexy Conception, pictured at the top of this story in a 2011 Singapore Math lesson at Fair Haven School) study fractions in much more depth, but never make it to probability, which is on the CMT.

All schools statewide are going to ditch the CMT and CAPT in 2014-15 and start using the Smarter Balance tests, which are aligned to the Common Core. But Pryor has sought federal permission to let school districts opt to switch to the new tests a year earlier, in the 2013-14 school year. Pryor said Tuesday that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has indicated he will grant the flexibility.

Harries said New Haven will almost certainly scrap the CMT and CAPT in the upcoming school year if given the opportunity, because schools have already changed the way they teach to adapt to Common Core.

“I’d be shocked” if New Haven kept using the CMT and CAPT next year, he said. (The district may have to keep the CAPT science test, because Common Core doesn’t yet specify standards for science.)

When New Haven switches to the new tests, scores are likely to drop dramatically—as they did recently in New York—due to the higher standards. Harries said he will have to talk to the school board about “reconsidering” the district’s goals for growth on tests, given the transition.

High School

In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, Commissioner Pryor highlighted one New Haven high school, High School in the Community (HSC), as a bright spot among test scores.

HSC sophomores posted gains in every subject. The number of students scoring at goal in reading shot up from 8.7 percent to 24.4 percent. That outpaced statewide gains, Pryor noted in a press release: Statewide, the number of students scoring at goal in reading rose by 1.0 percent, from 47.5 percent to 48.5 percent. 

The number of kids scoring “at goal” in rose from 8.7 percent to 24.4 percent in reading; from 13.3 to 14.3 percent in math; and from 5.9 to 17.3 percent in science. Between 41 and 52 kids took each subject test, which was consistent with the prior year.

School officials touted the results as an early success for “mastery-based learning,” a new approach HSC is gradually rolling out. Read about that experiment here; click here to read a series of stories about the first year of the experiments taking place in general at HSC under new union management.

“We are highly encouraged by the progress made by High School in the Community,” Pryor said in a phone conference call Tuesday.

He didn’t mention that sophomores taking the CAPT didn’t fully engage in “mastery-based learning,” which calls for kids to master each subject before they move on. Only about half of sophomore classes used the new method because it’s being phased in, starting with the freshmen.

Pryor highlighted HSC because the state has made a major investment in its overhaul. As part of a new statewide reform plan, the state poured $2.1 million into the 230-student school last year alone to fund a “turnaround” effort there run by the teachers union. The changes came as HSC became one of the first four schools in the Commissioner’s Network of low-performing schools that got extra state support to fund reforms.

Gains in scores in the four Commissioner’s Network schools are “initial signs that our signature reforms are working,” Pryor declared.

Pryor was asked how much weight should be given to the CAPT, given that it doesn’t show growth for individual kids, and given that schools will shortly abandon the test for a measurement that’s considered more meaningful. (The test compares this year’s sophomores to last year’s, which is a different group of kids.)

Pryor acknowledged the limitation of the test, but said “the trends that are perceived in these data are nonetheless” important.

Harries was asked the same question.

“It’s a limited measure,” Harries said, “because it’s a different group of kids” who take the test each year. He said the test gains at HSC are “an indicator of progress, but it’s far from a declaration of victory.”

“The final measure,” said Harries, “has to be college, career and life success.”

Harries said the district is getting better at measuring college success, and is working on ways to start measuring career success.

The scores released Tuesday will provide the basis for how the district grades teachers, principals and schools. Harries said he knows of no cases where where CMTs will be the deciding factor in whether a teacher gets fired. The district has already issued teachers provisional ratings based on other test data, as well as their professional conduct and classroom observations. Harries said any decisions on how to grade teachers or schools will keep in mind the greater context of how other peers performed: For example, 3rd-grade teachers won’t be automatically punished for the declining scores; their kids’ performance will be seen in relation to how other teachers’ kids performed in comparable classrooms.

For the first time, test scores will be available to parents through the PowerSchools system, starting in the fall, Harries said.

Tags: , , , , ,

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: True that on August 13, 2013  6:10pm

There is so much spinning by the commissioner and super that I literally became dizzy.  Increase in test scores - reforms are working.  Decrease in test scores- we are going to scrap this test next year anyway, and no one is teaching to it anymore so we anticipated lower scores. What?
There is no miracle at HSC.  As the article points out, only half the test takers were engaged in Mastery learning, and one has to wonder just how many students were retained as freshmen so that they did not have to take the test this year, thereby showing an artificial increase in test scores.

Harries contention that ” the final measure has to be college, career and life success” is o vague as to not be measurable.  Schools should be held accountable for what students do while in school.  Students, parents and society should be held accountable for what students do when they leave schools.  Holding schools accountable for, say college completion rates, is beyond the pale.  At what point do students themselves become accountable?

Reformy types like Pryor and Harries repeatedly say that their reforms will improve test scores.  When the scores don’t improve, the reformers have convenient excuses lime, “our reforms take time” or “the test is changing” or “what’s really important is that students are more successful in life.”. I guarantee you that had scores gone up across the board, both Pryor and Harries would say the reforms work.

Either standardized test scores are a significant measure of student progress, or they aren’t.  I happen to believe they aren’t significant at all.  However, the reformy types can’t have it both ways.  If you measure yourself by test scores, and say that these scores must be included in teacher and principal evaluations, then you cannot arbitrarily dismiss them when they don’t turn out the way you want them to.  Using scores to evaluate teachers defies all reliable research, and is just plain ridiculous.

posted by: Brutus2011 on August 13, 2013  7:32pm

I like the initial reports on HSC.

I’d like to see the NHFT move aside and let the teachers totally manage the curriculum—get all the administrative politics out once and for all.

I call on Superintendent Harries to funnel some funding to staff HSC with more paras or TA’S. HSC is too good a chance to mess it up.

Put the “First” back into “Kid’s First.”

posted by: anonymous on August 13, 2013  9:12pm

To be honest, the “five year trend” in that NHPS press release does not seem like much of a “trend.” It looks more like a year that was cherry picked to provide a positive statistic.

From 2009 to 2013, the number of 3rd grade reading White and Asian test takers statewide fell by 12%.  In the New Haven Public Schools, it went up by 36%.  That’s a pretty dramatic shift, that could explain why that “five year trend” looks good to NHPS’s press release writers. 

Perhaps the NHPS press release should focus on how low income students in the poorest-performing schools are really doing.  These students are more than 10 times less likely to graduate than their peers - aren’t those the students that NHPS should be most worried about?

posted by: CreatingUrgency on August 13, 2013  9:36pm

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 14, 2013  8:26am

posted by: NotMyFirstName on August 13, 2013 9:36pm

You are on point.In fact look what Happen In New York.

Test Scores Drop Under Tougher Standards.

What big drop in new standardized test scores really means

P.S. How about Domus?

posted by: teacherteacher on August 14, 2013  8:35am

Notmyfirstname, teachers would welcome parents opting out of testing! We see the damage this new regime is doing to our profession and our society, but the only thing that can stop it is parent action. We know the tests are completely counterproductive, but if we try to say so, we are dismissed. It’s widely thought that if we publicly question the tests, we must be looking for excuses for our own poor performance.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on August 14, 2013  9:45am

@True That:  You are spot-on!  The inane comments from Commissioner Pryor and Superintendent Harries are the types of things that are said around the corporate boardroom. 

@ Brutus, I hope HSC teachers are given enough freedom from their union managers to continue their work this year.  New Haven has the opportunity to lead the way on more thoughtful ways of educating children.  Let’s hope we let our heads, rather than our wallets and egos, lead the way.

This article highlights the problems of letting non-educators lead our public education institutions.

If Prior and Harries had a classroom perspective, they would recognize that the Bill Gates funded Common Core Standards were just released.  The overhaul of curricula to address them has just begun.  It is highly unlikely that there is any connection between CMT and CAPT scores and the new standards.  They should know this, but they don’t seem to.

These new standards are tied to very challenging computer-graded tests.  They have led to drastic declines in test scores when introduced in Kentucky and New York.  It’s a “reformers” dream because it further tears down our public schools. 

True educational leaders stand up to test that harm children by labeling them “failures”.

True educational leaders champion the challenging work teachers do and provide more human supports in their neediest classrooms.

True educational leaders don’t focus on maximizing class size.

Testing and labeling of children does not seem to be improving the educational experience in our country. 

I feel the “reformers” chosen approaches of cutting classroom teachers, adding very difficult tests, “performance” or “merit” pay, and privatization harm our children and the schools they attend.