Preparing Connecticut’s students for the real world

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Last week, my family enjoyed its annual summer vacation. This trip included multiple time changes, budgeting, scheduling the various shows at an amusement park to ensure we saw everything, and calculating the appropriate tips at restaurants. It was a wonderful trip and it was also an excellent example of a performance task on the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment is a rigorous, relevant, and refreshing change from the uninspiring and basic Connecticut Mastery Test. The math portion of the Smarter Balanced assessment provides students with the opportunity to apply skills they have acquired in the classroom to real-life scenarios, better preparing them for future problem-solving situations, such as planning a vacation.

Is this test a huge adjustment for students, staff, and parents? Of course it is. But, is the Smarter Balanced test unfair and detrimental to students’ educational experience? Absolutely not.

Prior to teaching in Connecticut, I taught for seven years in Texas. When I began teaching in Texas, they were just piloting a new state test (TAKS). Everyone was very nervous both about how students would react to the new test and about how much scores would plummet from the previous assessment.

Although the first year’s scores were lower than in previous years, one huge benefit arose from that first round of testing: teachers and students now knew what to expect. And guess what? The following year, the scores improved… a lot. The students were more comfortable with the level of rigor the testing provided. And the teachers took the opportunity to increase the rigor and depth of thinking in their lessons, so students were prepared for the higher-level problem solving.

After six years of that test, another change came. And another wave of panic came. But, best of all new, higher-quality, more rigorous questions came and that provided students with a more beneficial educational experience.

A deep understanding of mathematics is more than just memorizing facts or tricks to solve basic problems. It is being able to apply skills to a multi-step, real-world situation. I had a student many years ago, who asked me at the beginning of each new unit, “Why do I need to know this?” He was not doing it to be difficult; he really wanted to know the connection between the math I was teaching him and his own life now and in the future.

Students have more interest in solving problems that they can relate to or find interesting than in solving a series of basic problems that have no connection to their lives. The CMT was full of extremely basic, boring math problems. In contrast, the Smarter Balanced test provides students with high-interest scenarios and information that they then use to solve various problems. Students enjoy solving multi-step problems that they can connect to, as long as they have the tools to attack such problems.

When the 2015 Smarter Balanced Assessment scores are released, it is important for all members of the school community to remember two key things. First, with any new form of state testing there is a period of adjustment that must be endured before declaring the test “unfair.” Several years ago, my district adopted a new mathematics textbook, and during the first two years of implementation, teachers stated that the new book was too hard for the students. They said it was unfair to students to switch programs. They felt students learned successfully one way and could not possibly adjust to the new program.

Sure enough after three years of using the program, teachers praised the textbook; just as I expect people will soon praise the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

Second, remember that educators are charged with preparing students for the future, and the new testing presents students with the opportunity to solve realistic problems, rather than a mundane series of basic math equations. A teacher teaches to prepare children to have successful futures, not to be good test-takers. Although the scores on this first round of the Smarter Balanced Assessment might be lower than on previous assessments, parents should know that their children are taking an assessment that will help them be college and career ready in the future.

Katie Busbey of North Granby has been teaching for 10 years, the last three in Granby. She is a member of the CT State Network of Educators.

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