State board of ed must scrutinize charters more independently

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The Connecticut State Board of Education will meet on tomorrow morning, Sept. 7, to kick off the new school year.  One of the issues held over from the previous board meeting is contract approvals of two charter (school) management organizations [CMOs].  Given two months to review the evidence presented by state Department of Education officials tasked with recommending approval, the CSBE must determine whether there is sufficient evidence to ensure honesty and transparency in this use of public resources.

However, with mounting evidence of questionable practices, corruption, and theft involving many charter schools and their charter management organizations across the country, it is the responsibility of state education officials charged with protecting students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers to ensure that similar questionable (and often illegal) practices are not taking place in our state.

A recent report of alleged criminal activity at the LAUSD El Camino Charter (in California) is just another in a series of problematic practices inherent in many charter organizations. Every day there are reports of charter school scandals in education news. Certainly, there have been places harder hit by charter school malfeasance and corruption, but that does not mean Connecticut is immune from similar controversies?

How can the CSBE assure the taxpayers of this state that charter schools and their CMOs are operating honestly and transparently? There are few states in our country that have not been touched by some form of charter school scandal.

In Connecticut, we too have suffered our own charter school scandals and, although we have made a variety of excuses, it is undeniable that under-regulation and lack of sufficient oversight make it tempting for corporate entities, such as charter management organizations, to cut corners and find savings in order to remain solvent.

It has been well documented that some CMOs even engage in shady practices. It is not enough to accept the word of CSDE staff in evaluating the efficacy of these charter organizations, but that is exactly what is taking place in the current review of Achievement First and Capitol Prep CMOs.

Unfortunately, the CSDE as well as the Governor’s Office have exhibited their favoritism to charter school proliferation throughout this recent difficult legislative session and cannot be unbiased arbiters during this review.

As a State Board of Education entrusted with our children’s education, it is important to stop pursuing unsubstantiated promises and seek evidence from independent appraisers and monitors. Without such independent appraisal, it is not possible to ensure that similar scandals won’t plague us here.

Another agenda item at the Sept. 7 State Board meeting will undoubtedly be a report by Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell giving her interpretation of the success of the recently-released SBAC and re-designed SAT results.

However, the critical question (which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been asked or answered) in order to understand how to interpret the results is whether the “cut-scores” on the 2015 SBAC, ELA and math tests remained the same as the “cut-scores” used in the 2016 scoring of the SBAC.

It is well known by tests and measurement professionals that “A cut-score really only has one use: to engineer a desired political outcome,” as reported by John Kuhn in Jesse Hagopian’s More Than A Score book. Or, as Bernie Horn wrote in Diane Ravitch’s blog (9.13.15): “The cut scores are the passing marks. They are arbitrary and subjective decisions made by fallible human beings. They can raise the passing mark to create large numbers of ‘failures,’ or they can lower the passing mark to create a ‘success’ story, to celebrate their wonderful policies.”

The public deserves to know whether the SBAC “cut-scores” were changed or adjusted from one year to another in order to fabricate the desired outcome upon which Commissioner Wentzell’s talking points are drawn.  It is important that evidence of her response be obtained.

It is an abrogation of CSBE responsibilities to quietly accept the state department’s messaging without asking the crucial questions that will allow the public to better understand the on-going, controversial narrative surrounding Smarter Balanced Assessments. The public relies on the CSBE to ask clarifying questions before either SBAC or the re-designed SAT will be accepted by parents, educators, and taxpayers in our State. As of now, these two testing protocols represent an egregious waste of precious financial resources.

It has also been disappointing to see some reporters continue referring to SBAC as a “standardized” test. Any computer-adaptive measure which adjusts the question presented to a student depending on the previous response cannot — by definition — meet criteria as “standardized.”  Commissioner Wentzell knows this and is always careful to couch her SBAC discussion without saying so.

Commissioner Wentzell needs to answer straight out: Is the Smarter Balanced Assessment a standardized test? Yes or No?  It is time to dispel the commonly-held public misunderstanding that SBAC is a legitimate standardized measure.

This past month, a Reuters report of the FBI raid on the home of former College Board Executive Miguel Alfaro referenced that he had sent his whistle-blower allegations of re-designed SAT improprieties: “concealment, fabrication, and deception used by the College Board to misrepresent the SAT and PSAT” to several state education leaders across the country, only to be dismissed summarily by Kelly Connolly, spokesman for the CSDE, without any investigative review.

This seems remarkably short-sighted as well as purposeful in light of the on-going year-and-a-half study by the legislature-commissioned Mastery Examination Task Force.

The litany of misinformation remains persistent and must be stopped.

John Bestor is a recently retired school psychologist who worked for 41 years in a Connecticut public school system.

What do you think?

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