School testing to undergo statewide transformation

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Region - posted Wed., Mar. 13, 2013
Voluntown teacher Ed Duncan works with fourth-graders on math problems. The students are among those taking the Connecticut Mastery Test. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Voluntown teacher Ed Duncan works with fourth-graders on math problems. The students are among those taking the Connecticut Mastery Test. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

As elementary school students across the region spend a good chunk of their March school days filling in ovals on standardized test sheets, their teachers and school administrators are looking ahead to a new method of student evaluation that will spell the end of the Connecticut Mastery Test. The CMT, which for more than two decades has served as a benchmark for student academic performance across the state, is being phased out in favor of the Smarter Balance evaluation tool, scheduled to be fully implemented in the 2014-15 school year.

The new test, which will be administered by computer and have more open-ended questions, will measure students against the Common Core, a nationally-mandated set of standards for education that Connecticut adopted several years ago and has been gradually phasing in for public schools across the state.

The CMT was designed to assess how closely students meet state-set standards in reading, writing, math and science, said Voluntown Elementary School Principal Alicia Sweet Dawe. It was also aimed at increasing accountability and encouraging high standards for public school districts. It became obligatory for all students in grades 3 through 8 in 2006, and the science portion was mandated for students in grades 5 and 8 in 2008. Each student participates in about seven hours of testing yearly, she said.

The CMT has drawn its share of controversy over the years, said Joseph Stefon, director of curriculum for the Norwich school district. The test was intended to help educators identify weak areas of student performance so teachers and students could work together to improve them. However, it has since morphed into a set of statistics with much broader influence outside the classroom. “It was not going to compare one district to another, and that’s happening. It was not going to compare one school to another within a district, and that’s happening,” he said.

Ultimately, the CMT was seized upon by parents, media and even real estate professionals as a means to rank the entire district’s performance and quality of education, compared to towns with similar socio-economic make-up, Stefon said. “They base the quality of the district on just one test,” not taking into account other academic, cognitive and creative factors, he said.

That high profile for CMT scores means that the stakes are higher for good school performance, and critics say that has led to “teaching to the test” – interrupting the organic flow of the school year to cram for the material covered in the CMT. Stefon said that should not be the case, but admits that it does happen even though in reality it may not do much good. “If you have good teaching going on all the time, I don’t know that [teaching to the test] with young students is going to work,” he said.

While all students from grades 3 through 8 take some form of CMT, third-graders who are new to the test format may need prior instruction on how to fill in the forms correctly, he said.

Implementing online tests for the Common Core will mean that “districts that don’t have up-to-date technology will have to get moving on that,” said Stefon. It will also mean a longer window of time for testing – three months instead of three weeks – and a more sequential format, testing specific skills as students build on them through the grades, he said.

Griswold Superintendent of Schools Paul Smith said that the online format will make test results available to teachers and administrators much faster, enabling them to intervene in trouble areas more quickly. The Common Core standards, he said, “represent for us a pretty sweeping reform of the curriculum on a national level.” The nation-wide standards will enable fairly accurate comparisons of school performance from state to state, not just town to town, he said. Higher standards “can only be positive for all our students,” he said.

But, he added, the state is simultaneously adjusting its teacher evaluation standards, basing 40 percent of the scores on CMT results, despite the CMT’s impending phase-out. In addition, the state currently has a waiver on meeting No Child Left Behind benchmarks for adequate yearly progress, and there will be what Smith called “an awkward bump” when the state transitions from the CMT to Common Core standards of measurement.

And like all standardized tests, “there are a lot of important things that the CMT and the Common Core don’t test that we know our children have to achieve to succeed,” said Smith. These include such areas of growth as creativity, collaboration and higher-order thinking. “We certainly want reading and math scores to improve, but not at the expense of [these areas],” he said.

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