Connecticut’s students must be challenged in school

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When I was a wrestler in junior high (a place that is called “middle school” today), my coach saw in me a knack for the sport and decided that I needed a greater challenge. He therefore arranged for me to compete in exhibition matches with high school students. Now, competing at higher level certainly impacted my personal log of wins and losses.

But while my losses mounted, I was also being exposed to more rigorous competition and greater challenges. As you might expect, this led me to adapt and dramatically improve. Human beings, especially young ones, improve most when they face challenges.

This year’s new Smarter Balanced Assessment, designed to assess student learning and measure college and career readiness, is generally accepted as “raising the bar” for our children. Because the test is harder, education experts have repeatedly stated that they anticipate scores on the new test will go down.

Nonetheless, the new test—while imperfect—represents a huge step forward in the science of education and provides an opportunity for our nation to dramatically increase our achievement levels for all children.

Really, this is an opportunity for everyone involved in our education system to improve. I saw similar increases in rigor twice during my two-decades-long-career as a Connecticut educator. Each time, the increase in difficultly resulted in lower test scores, followed by many years of steady improvement. And through each transition, Connecticut students benefited from our continued efforts to improve the public education system. Now is no different.

Connecticut adopted the Common Core in 2010, and since then, school districts have been hard at work, revising curricula, developing new lessons, and selecting new materials so that they can best prepare their students to meet heightened educational expectations. This has been a serious, time-consuming, and difficult task–involving re-organizing the order in which topics are presented, revising teaching techniques, and sometimes even establishing completely new expectations.

Despite our best efforts, this work will need refinement, much of which can only occur after we receive the district-level results. The results from this year’s test will become the baseline from which we can work to improve.

Although we can expect to see scores that are generally lower on the 2015 Smarter Balanced Assessment than they were on the CMT, we all need to remember that the tests measure progress towards a new goal. Parents should hope to see their students getting closer to that goal each year going forward.

As a young wrestler, I went through a similar process of feedback and adjustment–though a much shorter one, given that the average match lasted only six minutes. When you face a challenge, the way in which you consider feedback and make corresponding adaptations is the most important part of the learning process. That cycle is critical to learning and improvement.

Even in this baseline year, the Smarter Balanced test will give parents valuable information about how well their children are prepared for post-graduation experiences. I am a father of children who took the test, and I look forward to learning whether they’re on track to be successful for college and careers. If they’re struggling, the Smarter Balanced results will let me know that I need to give them assistance—sooner, rather than later. I’d rather address any such issue now, than when they’re struggling in college.

When the scores drop, as they inevitably will, remember that we need to teach our kids to face challenges and adversity head on; and that we often learn more from defeat than from victory. I certainly remember the pain of defeat when I faced strong competition on the wrestling mat, but I also remember how good it felt to earn a varsity letter as a freshman and to win championships as my skills grew!

I expect nothing less for the children of Connecticut. Given the chance, they too will rise to the challenge, and they too will achieve.

Jeffrey Villar is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), a nonprofit organization that seeks to narrow Connecticut’s widest-in-the-nation achievement gap. 

What do you think?

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