SBAC is invalid, unreliable and detrimental to students

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I read with dismay Jeffrey Villar’s April 12 column titled, “State Board of Education Demands Action on Teacher Evaluation.” The arguments regarding teacher evaluation made by Villar and the corporate-backed organization he represents, the Connecticut Coalition for Education Reform (CCER), are misleading and insulting to teachers.

I was a teacher in Connecticut for 17 years and an administrator for three before joining the Connecticut Education Association last June. I left a career I loved in opposition to a teacher evaluation system I was forced to implement despite serious ethical concerns. I also administered the SBAC test and was responsible for addressing the massive problems it created, from large numbers of parents “opting” children out to many glitches in technology that interfered with test completion.

Villar’s claim that SBAC is “our most valid and reliable” measure of student learning reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what standardized tests can and cannot do. Simply because a test is standardized does not mean it is valid and reliable, nor does it ensure it is an objective measure of how much a student knows.

Even the best standardized test is unable to measure the sizable domain of knowledge acquired over a year of study, and contains only a small sample of questions. Selection bias may unintentionally skew the sample of test items, which could result in some students scoring lower than others, not necessarily because they know less, but because they did not understand the way a question was worded.

Standardized tests also do a poor job of measuring important skills like creative problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. Standardized tests tend, to varying degrees, to be culturally and linguistically biased against English language learners and students from disadvantaged backgrounds — the very students Villar claims will most benefit from the use of SBAC in teacher evaluation.

As a former teacher and administrator, I understand standardized tests are designed for a specific purpose. Unlike SBAC, valid test scores can be used to help identify schools and students in need and direct resources to best benefit students.

Villar, however, argues SBAC scores should account for 22.5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, which is not what SBAC is designed to do. Using SBAC for this purpose undermines the integrity of teacher evaluation, because the test was not designed to measure teacher effectiveness. In addition, once a test becomes high stakes, teachers and administrators may feel pressured to sacrifice valuable learning time to teach test-taking strategies, and narrow their instruction to focus on the small sample of questions likely to appear on the test.

Villar’s statement, “The CEA has continued to push for an absolute ban despite the fact a majority of the CEA’s own constituents believe measures of student learning should be included in their evaluations,” is based on a false premise. CEA and its members support the use of accurate measures of student learning, but object to the misuse of SBAC, a test that, for a variety of reasons (such as unequal access to technology) has failed to yield valid scores for the majority of students.

There are many authentic measures of student learning, including classroom tests, experiments, debates, and written work tied to the curriculum and measured over time. In addition, many teachers regularly administer short standardized tests to measure student growth over time. Taken together, such measures paint a far more robust portrait of student learning and teacher performance than a single test score.

Lastly, Villar ignores the harsh realities associated with Connecticut’s achievement gap. Connecticut is home to one of the widest income gaps in the country, and suffers from one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the industrialized world. To claim a good teacher should be able to singlehandedly overcome hunger, chronic absenteeism, crime, and the other impediments to learning that go along with poverty ignores the basic needs of children, families, and communities.

It is far easier and cheaper to blame a teacher than to invest the resources needed to expand early childhood programs and wrap-around services, programs shown to improve student achievement.

Villar ends his column by thanking Allan Taylor and the other members of the State Board of Education for “Standing up for the best interests of Connecticut students” by insisting SBAC scores be linked to teacher evaluation without a thorough review of the evidence.

I say, shame on you, Allan Taylor and members of the State Board of Education for failing to see through the misleading statements made by corporate groups like CCER. Shame on you for failing to stand up for Connecticut’s teachers and the students they so capably serve.

Kate Field is a CEA Teacher Development Specialist.

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