As 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.