Test data matters for Connecticut. Education is a science

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In a recent piece covered by the CTMirror, Mary Quinn-Devine, an English teacher, says, “We’re not against testing. We’re against this test… It’s just data collection.”

I couldn’t disagree more with these sentiments.

Teachers and union leaders who repeat Ms. Quinn-Devine’s mantra seem to be implying that data collection has no place in education. They’re ignoring the fundamental fact that our modern day society is data-driven. And rightfully so. Data allows us to improve, regulate, and make smart decisions about all kinds of industries. Public education should not be exempt.

Imagine, if you would, a world in which we didn’t make data-driven decisions. What if we didn’t set safety standards based upon data about automobile safety? What if hospitals didn’t use data to track the success rates of surgical procedures? What if the Food and Drug administration didn’t use data to monitor the safety of new medications, or the Center for Disease Control didn’t track the spread of communicable diseases?

Data-driven decision-making improves these industries, ensuring that society receives the greatest benefit from their services. Without data, we’d have less safe cars, surgeries, medications, and disease protection.

Until recent developments, we haven’t had sufficient high-quality data about public education. Is it any surprise that our education system is less than optimal? In Connecticut, we have the widest achievement gap in the nation. We’re simply failing large swaths of the student population.

Despite what some would have you believe about the “art of teaching,” take it from a former superintendent and educator of 20 years: education is a science. We have research on data-driven practices that absolutely will make a difference for kids.

On the flip side, there are also some traditional practices in education that remain popular among practitioners, despite repeatedly being demonstrated as ineffective. Must we settle for the status quo in Connecticut? Or might we, instead, embrace the reality that data can lead to dramatic improvements?

In the first place, annual assessment data identifies which schools and districts are improving, and which are not. That’s important information; we need to know when schools are not meeting the needs of their students. We can’t just ignore that information.

In the second place, quality data on education can also reveal which instructional practices are effective for which groups of students. For example, if you could prove that a particular strategy helped English Language Learners to succeed in school, would you ignore that data, or would you scale it?

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test is an advanced, computer-based assessment that will provide us with the opportunity to collect the most refined student achievement data we’ve ever seen.

Light-years ahead of the old Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) that our state has used for decades, the SBAC has the potential to provide us with far more information about student learning. Beyond measuring fact memorization, it very accurately examines students’ mastery of skills by adjusting the difficulty of questions based upon a student’s answers to previous questions. This format will allow us to better pinpoint each student’s academic progress, and the results will also be available much faster than they were on the CMT.

Those districts concerned that administration of the SBAC takes longer usually have not invested in the requisite technology for the test. If they lack enough modern computers to let large numbers of students take the test at once, then they need to stagger administration of the test, and that will take longer. This is a function of local priorities, not the SBAC assessment.

To me, it’s shameful that, in 2015, some Connecticut schools find themselves lacking in computer technology. Computer literacy is a compulsory component of students’ educations in high school and beyond. Last year, Gov. Malloy made $10 million available to help districts build up their computer technology. So why are there communities that find themselves unprepared?

I, for one, am pleased that the SBAC will force our communities to invest in modern technology for their schools. Even more importantly, I’m glad that –for the same time investment as the annual test we’ve offered for 30 years–we can finally have the high-quality data that this industry so sorely needs. It’s time to make informed decisions about what students actually need from their schools.

Jeffrey Villar is Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, and the former superintendent of Windsor and Rocky Hill Public Schools.

What do you think?

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