School Staff: With Smarter Balanced, It’s Near-Impossible to ‘Teach to the Test’ [CORRECTION]

School curriculum leaders told members of the Board of Education on Monday that when it comes to the new Smarter Balanced assessments that are replacing the now-outdated Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT), there really is no way to “teach to the test.”

“It’s probably very close to impossible to teach to this test—because of the adaptive nature of it,” Sarah Broas, English language arts coordinator for grades 5-8, said in a response to a question from school board member Maria Naughton during the group’s regular meeting, held in the Wagner Room at New Canaan High School. “But it is also because of all the standards that are wrapped up in the test.”

Broas was one of about a dozen curriculum leaders at the meeting who have been working as a team to address the district’s standardized testing needs. The meeting included a detailed overview of how the district is doing all five of the state assessments, including the CMT (Science), CAPT (Science) and CT/SAT, as well as the new Smarter Balanced, which was first administered to students in 2014 as a pilot or “field test.”

The Smarter Balanced test was developed to be more closely aligned with the Common Core Standards adopted by Connecticut and 44 other states in 2010. It is administered in grades 3 through 8 and currently covers language arts and math. A new science test is scheduled for launch next year and will replace the CMT/CAPT science tests.

A key difference between the Smarter Balanced test and the CMT/CAPT (Science), besides the grades in which it is administered, is that Smarter Balanced was designed from the get-go to be taken on a computer. Unlike the CMT/CAPT, which were originally paper-based and only recently brought into the digital realm, are “non-adaptive,” whereas Smarter Balanced utilizes a “computerized adaptive testing approach,” wherein the difficulty or scope of the questions varies based on the student’s preceding responses. Test designers and administrators claim that this responsive type of testing delivers a more accurate snapshot of what a student has learned and also enables more meaningful analysis of the test data.

During Monday’s presentation, Dr. Jill Correnty, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that New Canaan students took both the CMT and the Smarter Balanced tests this past spring (which is typically when all standardized tests are administered), but may not have to do so this coming year. That’s because, she said, the new science test is due to be rolled out as a pilot, creating a potential for test overload for students in grades 5 and 8.

“We are waiting to hear whether the students this year will have to take both the CMT and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Assessment Field Test,” Correnty told the board. “Right now, we’re planning on [them taking both].”

Correnty shared results from this year’s Smarter Balanced test showing that New Canaan ranked among the highest-performing districts in the state. What’s more, the results show that students performed better on both the math and language arts components of the test compared with last year.

The test scores, she explained, are grouped into four levels. The goal is to have as many students as possible in the Level 3 and Level 4 categories, which are the top-performing categories.

“Most students in New Canaan are in the Level 3 and 4 categories in grades 3 through 8,” Correnty said.

More specifically, 85.1 percent of students were at Level 3 or Level 4 in math—and more than 64 percent were at Level 4 alone.

“We are number one in the DRG [District Reference Group] and number one in the state in terms of performance on this test,” Correnty said.

Naughton asked Correnty what the district is doing to bring up the performance of the students who fall into the Level 1 and Level 2 categories. “What type of remediation takes place?” she asked.

Correnty explained that it is a matter of diving down into the individual student data to see what is going on and coming up with a plan to meet each student’s unique learning needs.

“There are some students in those [test score] levels that might have an IEP and are receiving special education services,” she said. “So, it’s always having that conversation with the special educators as well as the general educators to make sure that we’re balancing off what we’re instructing the students on. We’re always looking at their growth on the assessment and remediating those students and getting them the mediation they need.”

Similarly, students might be “receiving a tier one or tier two plan, where they are getting specific instruction in math or language,” she added.

Correnty emphasized that the staff would tend to use the in-district tests more, as a guide to determine where a student needs help, than they would the state assessment results.

For some school parents, “teaching to the test” has implications with regard to quality of education. The question is: If a school district spends too much time focusing on how to bring scores up on standardized tests, what is the overall impact on quality? Some feel standardized testing is taking too much time away from traditional classroom instruction. This is part of the reason why some school districts have gone the route of administering state tests on the weekends.

And it’s not just the preponderance of standardized tests that districts are worried about; some are worried about the overall impact of the Common Core standards because they have the effect of completely re-shaping school curriculum around standardized testing.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bryan Luizzi addressed this issue more than two years ago on the public schools’ website:

“Some people have expressed concern that the Connecticut Core Standards dictate curriculum and instruction in New Canaan and elsewhere,” Luizi wrote. “This is simply not the case. Standards define what students in each grade should know and be able to do; they do not dictate how educators should teach or how students should learn.

“Our educators will continue to develop lesson plans and to tailor instruction to the individual needs of each student in their classrooms,” Luizi added. “Our instructional leaders will continue working collaboratively to develop curriculum, units, and lessons aligned with the standards and focused on best practices. The standards themselves are not a curriculum; instead, they inform our work, and our skilled educators develop and deliver meaningful and relevant learning experiences for our students in all grades.”

Interestingly, Monday’s presentation began with a similar disclaimer of sorts:

“Annual state testing is not useful as a sole measure of student achievement or program evaluation,” Correnty said. “It is not useful as a source of guidance for curriculum and instruction. Teaching to the test is never quality instruction and does not result in long-lasting learning. Annual state testing is not a substitute for other ways that student achievement should be assessed. And we must continue to asses student learning in a variety of ways. And that includes our district assessments throughout the year.”

Preliminary CMT/CAPT Scores Presented

During the meeting, preliminary results for the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT Science) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT Science) administered this past spring were shared. The results show that although test scores dipped slightly compared to 2016, New Canaan was still soundly among the highest performing districts in the state and in the country.

According to the preliminary figures, which Correnty said could still be adjusted slightly, about 89 percent of fifth graders who took the CMT Science test, administered to grades 5 and 8, performed at or above state goal, down from about 90 percent in 2016, while about 88 percent of eight graders were at or above goal, down from 89 percent last year.

The district’s overall CAPT Science scores also dropped. About 72 percent of students who took the test in 10th grade were at or above goal compared with 79 percent last year.

The preliminary data did not include comparisons to the other towns in New Canaan’s DRG, which is a grouping of school districts in southern Fairfield County that have similar performance characteristics. Nor was there any way to compare to previous years’ data, due to changes in the tests.

Smarter Balanced Test Window

Correnty also updated the board that the test window for the Smarter Balanced assessment is currently set for March 26 through May 25. That means the test will be administered in three different sub-tests during this period. Timing of the delivery of the sub-tests varies depending on grade level, she said, adding that the district will have finalized dates from the state soon.

[Note: This article was corrected to attribute certain quotes to Dr. Jill Correnty that had been incorrectly attributed to Sarah Broas.]

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