A few weeks ago, the Hartford Courant published a story comparing the results of students who attend traditional Hartford public schools, Open Choice magnet schools, and regional charter schools. The main point of the article was that students in choice and charter schools did better than traditional schools in terms of student growth towards individual goals and the average percentage of students who achieved targets.
The numbers are not encouraging. From 2015 through 2019, neighborhood Hartford schools only averaged 15.6% of students reaching proficiency on the English, Language, and Arts (ELA) portion of the Smarter Balanced assessment and less than 10.3% reached proficiency in math. While better, Open Choice magnet schools averaged 32% for ELA and 20% for math; charters averaged 45.7% for ELA and 34.5% for math (note: only three years of data were available for charter schools, compared to four for magnets and neighborhood schools).
One critical piece of data that is usually left out of these discussions about testing performance is the less-than-stellar performance of the state as a whole. According to the Courant, 55.2% of the state’s students meet proficiency in ELA while only 46.1% are proficient in math. These results cut across race and location. In Ansonia, a suburban town that is 77% white, only 22% of students at Ansonia Middle School passed math and only 38% passed ELA 2019.
It should be obvious that a test where nearly half the students routinely fail is an impossible test. The blame for perennially low scores always falls on students and teachers; either the former aren’t trying hard enough or have some sort of deficiency, or the latter are lazy and coddled by unions who protect ineffective teachers from consequences.
I’ve worked in schools for most of my adult life. I went through a teacher training program and spent a year as a student teacher in the third grade at one of the magnet schools which produces “better” results. I can say with certainty that there’s nothing more that can be reasonably expected from teachers or students when it comes to preparing for standardized testing.
According to the state’s information page, the Smarter Balanced tests are “aligned to Connecticut Core Standards in English language arts/literacy and mathematics.” Well, so were our teacher training materials. In fact, every lesson plan that we wrote had to identify the standards in use and how we would apply them. The student’s work was based on the standards as well and we drilled the standards-based lessons into the students for hours a day, for nearly two hundred days out of the year.
And besides, the reality is that we have some of the most literate young people in the history of the country, when you consider that they are constantly interacting with the written word through social media and the internet in general. Our students do not have a hard time reading and writing. They have a hard time reading and writing in a stilted, academic format, under pressure, for two hours at a time. Failing these tests does not mean they’re unprepared for a world that will never ask them to write that way again.
The testing regime in Connecticut needs to change. At the very least, students and their families need a way to opt out of these tests without penalty. Connecticut is one of the many states which require students to take standardized testing and doesn’t offer a mechanism for opting out. Some school districts such as New Haven have local opt-out policies, but this should be an option across the state.
More broadly though, state education leaders need to reassess the wisdom of standardized tests which don’t reflect the conditions under which most students will work, write, and do math in the future. We’ve seen the shift away from standardized testing happening at the collegiate level for several years now and it’s become the norm for the majority of colleges. In 2022, more than two thirds of undergraduate schools in the US will make SAT/ACT scores optional when students apply. Colleges clearly understand that standardized tests are not reflecting the intelligence and abilities of students. It’s time for our education leaders to do the same.
Jamil Ragland is a writer from the Hartford area. His work deals with politics, race and culture. Jamil lives in Hartford with his son.