SBAC: Failing most Connecticut children in more ways than one

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The Connecticut SBAC scores will be released by the State Department of Education any day now. The scores will be low. You will be told that the low scores are because the SBAC tests are rigorous and our students don’t measure up.

Don’t believe it.

First of all, the test can’t possibly be rigorous because the Common Core Standards on which the tests are based are vapid. The Common Core English Standards do not teach students to be thoughtful readers, deep thinkers, or effective writers, so the SBAC exams do not measure those competencies.

Secondly, we have no idea if what is tested has predictability for the students’ future success in the next grade or college because no one checked with grade 4-12 teachers or college professors to see what competencies students will need. The Common Core English Standards were written by makers of standardized tests and are comprised of what can be measured by those tests, not comprised of what students need to learn.

Lastly, even though the Common Core has a low intellectual bar, most students will fail the tests because the passing grades have been artificially set. Last November, before any students had taken the 2015 SBAC tests, the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, representing Gov. Dannel Malloy, signed an agreement that the 2015 SBAC tests would fail 59 percent of high school juniors in English, 67 percent of high school juniors in math, 56-62 percent of third through eighth graders in English, and 61-68 percent of third through eighth graders in math       (“Cutoff Scores Set for Common-Core Tests”, Education Week, November 17, 2014).

When the majority of Connecticut children are soon told that they are failures, it is not because some absolute measure with objective criteria determined that, but because a test was designed to fail them.

By other criteria, Connecticut students are highly successful. For example, since 1992, Connecticut, along with Massachusetts and New Jersey, has had the highest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in the country, and Connecticut ranks fifth in the world, outranked by only three countries and the state of Massachusetts, in reading scores of 15-year-olds on the international PISA test. And we as a state have accomplished all of that with the highest achievement gap in the country and without excluding our lowest performing students from taking those tests. Somebody, mostly our kids, are doing something right. Yet most of them will be deemed failures next week.

There is something very wrong with this picture.

I have worked with hundreds of Connecticut English teachers and am confident that any of them could design a test that would fail two thirds of their students. But I don’t know one teacher who would do it.  That’s because they are educators and not politicians using manufactured test results to advance political agendas.

Those English teachers and I know how to design rigorous exams. We also know how to teach students so that those who do what we ask of them and put out good effort each day in class will demonstrate competency on rigorous assessments. We also know that some of those students will perform in truly exceptional ways on the assessments and that an occasional student will exceed even our wildest dreams and thrill us beyond belief.

We teach students the skills and then see how far they go with them. We teach for success.

Last January, I reviewed a midterm English exam with high school students who had just taken it. They had their graded exams on their desks along with a description of the competencies the exam asked of them.  Those competencies were:

  • Asking their own complex and multi-layered questions as thoughtful inquiry.
  • Engaging in active and critical reading of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, and films.
  • Thinking analytically as they independently interpreted challenging literary texts.
  • Thinking imaginatively as they made connections between a historical or fictional character and their own lives and creating a persona to write about that connection.
  • Engaging in narrative thinking as they told the story of their own learning.
  • Collaborating with others in order to strengthen their own interpretations and evaluations.
  • Writing essays which demonstrate their ability to revise and strengthen a piece over time as well as writing essays in a timed classroom setting.
  • Using correct grammar and usage.
  • Demonstrating focus, energy, and passion as they prepare for and participate in the two-hour exam.

Those students knew their exam was rigorous. Those students had been taught how to succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers. Those students, therefore, did succeed as readers, writers, and thinkers.

After comparing their exams to the list of competencies, the students ascertained their strengths and determined what they needed to work on in the next semester. And, for sure, these students knew they were not failures.

Not so when the SBAC scores come out. Most students will consider themselves failures. Or, perhaps, the Connecticut State Department of Education will do what the State of Washington did and lower the passing grade to keep educators and parents quiet about the low test scores.

Either way, the message of SBAC hurts kids. Either way, SBAC is not about teaching and learning. The truth is: The SBAC test is political monkey business.

It is our job as citizens and parents to tell students the truth about SBAC. It is our job as educators to keep teaching and assessing students in real and honest ways.

Otherwise, we adults are the failures.

Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught middle and high school English, was a district-level administrator for English, taught university courses in English education, and was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school curricula she designed and implemented.

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