March Madness (The CMT Version) Grips Schools

Melissa Bailey PhotoAs standardized tests begin today, teachers face the question: How will kids keep learning during the two-week testing frenzy?

The question arose last Friday, as schools held “pep rallies” to try to pump up kids for an annual rite of passage brought about by the federal No Child Left Behind Act—two weeks of high-stakes, state-mandated standardized tests.

Across the state, public school students begin Monday sitting down to take one of two tests: The Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) for grades 3 to 8 and Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) for high school sophomores. The so-called “CMT Olympics” and its high school equivalent spark an annual wave of anxiety for students, teachers, parents and school staff. In today’s accountability model of school reform, the tests provide a major basis—though not the sole basis—for the annual grading of teachers, principals and schools. Teachers’ and schools’ fates can rest on how much students improve on the tests.

“Success on the CMTs is a key component of New Haven School Change Initiative reforms and students who do well on these tests lay the groundwork to succeed in college and beyond,” wrote schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith in a press release Friday. She encouraged parents and students to check out test review materials online. Smith announced a slew of pep rallies across town, where students gathered in cafeterias and gyms to sing, dance and show school spirit in advance of the tests.

At one of those rallies, at Hill Central School, staff brought in 10 recording artists from New York and Connecticut, as well as platinum producer Troy Oliver, WYBC’s Juan Castillo and BET comedian Gerald Kelly. Students danced the dougie, rapped and sang. Highlights included a return appearance by Hill Central alum Tanei Williams, 18, a talented rapper now attending Gateway Community College. Williams, who performs under the name “Female Rapper,” took the stage with 19-year-old Ashley Johnson, who attended Augusta Lewis Troup School. Williams, who recalled attending CMT rallies as a kid, struck an uplifting note on the Hill Central stage.

“Just believe in yourself,” Williams told the kids. “I believe in you. Word up!” 

Click on the play arrow at the top of this story to watch her and Johnson perform William’s original song, “Closer To My Dreams.”

Teachers have been preparing their kids for this week through practice tests, test-taking strategy lessons and weekend “CAPT Academy” sessions for high school. The test prep continues during the week of the tests.

Third-grade teacher Megan Joyce said she has done her best to get her kids ready, emotionally and academically.

“They are pumped,” she reported.

Joyce showed up to the rally wearing a bright orange index card bearing the word “confident.” That’s the message she’s sending her kids, she said.

During the week, she’ll continue prepping them on test-taking strategies, such as underlining key words. They will get regular math and reading lessons, though they will be shorter than usual: Students will go through an abbreviated class schedule, with shorter periods, after their morning tests are complete. Morning tests take 45 minutes.

“We try not to disrupt instruction,” said Flo Crisci, an administrative intern at Hill Central. “We do not take away reading and math.”

Teachers worry, however, about what their kids are missing because of the time spent on tests.

“Not all teachers are thrilled about spending so much time preparing for tests that do not necessarily assess the skills and competencies that we agree are most important to learn,” said one teacher not present at the event, who declined to be named.

“There is a significant loss of instructional time due to state-mandated testing requirements,” he said.

“The deeper, higher-order projects and activities that engage students at a higher level are the ones that get pushed aside” because teachers have to cover material that will come up on the tests.

Nationally, the reliance of school reform and government education policy on “high-stakes” standardized exams has come under fire from some experts, who worry that it all distracts from more meaningful instruction, wastes time on teaching to tests, has produced some notorious cheating scandals, and leads to skewed, sometimes counterproductive decisions.

Barnard Principal Mike Crocco (pictured), who was visiting Hill Central’s rally with his 7th and 8th grade students, said testing “consumes a lot of what we do because of the heavy emphasis” on the scores. The testing “definitely disrupts the routine” of the normal school day, he said. But he said the school aims to continue instruction throughout the two weeks.

For the next two weeks, students will show up and take tests instead of their morning classes. The testing usually wraps up by 10:30 a.m., Crocco said. During the rest of the day, students review for the next day’s test and participate in other activities designed to keep them motivated, he said.

He was asked what teachers would do if kids didn’t have to take the CMT next week. He said the curriculum isn’t put on hold for two weeks, because the test is a central part of the yearlong plan.

“Everything in the curriculum is designed around it,” he said.

Crocco said while “there’s got to be a little bit of anxiety around the testing,” that level is lower now because the district has started measuring schools based on how much students improve on the tests, not just their absolute performance. He added that the CMTs “get kids to feel comfortable in a testing situation,” a skill they’ll need later in life.

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posted by: JohnTulin on March 4, 2013  11:43am

On testing, and today’s student:

posted by: swatty on March 4, 2013  12:46pm

“Everything in the curriculum is designed around it,” he said.

‘nuff said.

I received a call from Dr. Mayo this weekend about the tests starting Monday. I commend the mayor for allowing for allowing Dr. Mayo the use of the town mic for a day, but I question one call the night before this incredibly important event.

posted by: JohnTulin on March 4, 2013  2:50pm

T-Shirts, sharpened pencils (wow), pep rallies…all a dog-and-pony show, in the place of education.  What a joke….

posted by: ISR on March 4, 2013  3:30pm

When February break was cancelled, one of the reasons was the importance of our children’s education.  At Wilbur Cross, this week, classes will terminate at 11am for all. Sophomores will spend the rest of the day taking the CAPT. The rest of the student body will be dismissed for the day. On Friday, everyone will go home at 11.

Aside from the debatable educational value of the tests, where is the concern for education among all those being sent home? Is this the message we want to send? Show up for a couple of hours so we can meet our 180 day quota.

posted by: Billy on March 4, 2013  5:55pm

Maybe all of the organization that is put into these pep rallies could be better used to plan a student and teacher walk out next year, to protest these ridiculous tests.  I’m more than frustrated that the Bush administration had no idea how to address education, and that the Obama administration hasn’t done enough to remedy those mistakes.  The CMTs are a waste of our kids’ time, plain and simple.  I am the father of three NHPS kids, and have been watching this charade for several years.  Most teachers I’ve talked to throughout the years agree wholeheartedly that the CMTs are ineffective and a distraction.

posted by: True that on March 4, 2013  9:04pm

Abbie Smith has no idea what she is talking about.  There is not one study anywhere that shows when kids do well on the CMT they are better prepared for college and beyond.  Not one study.  The only thing standardized test results real with any consistency is the family’s education and income levels, and the student’s address.  In fact, a studen’s address is a better predictor of performance than anything else.  That says a lot about the hyper segregated nature of American housing patterns, and the negative impact it has on all children.  Yet, this is typical of New Haven leaders:  Make statements that are not just untruthful, but actually run counter to the research.  CMT scores have absolutely no impact on a student’s academic career, nor do CAPT SCORES.  Neither colleges, the military nor the workplace ask for CAPT scores, so what good are they?  If we spent time and energy making curriculum and delivering instruction that allows for creativity, and not preparing for a basic skills test, all our children would better off.