Letter: Sherman school officials give ‘one-sided view’ of new testing
Published 10:41 pm, Thursday, October 1, 2015
The following was submitted by Jack Bestor, a retired school psychologist who worked for 41 years in the Westport Public Schools. Bestor is a Sandy Hook resident who attended a recent school board meeting in Sherman.
To the editor:
The Sherman BOE did itself and the citizens of Sherman a huge disservice at its "special meeting" on Sept. 24, to discuss the recent SBAC test results. In the bucolic atmosphere of this beautiful country town on the western edge of the state, all the governor's horses and all the governor's men (and women) assembled to present a one-sided view on the many attributes of the Common Core and the improved new-generation, computer-adaptive SBAC test. Or, so their propaganda would suggest.
In a highly controlled informational meeting, it was made clear from the beginning that only Sherman residents would be allowed to speak. As a result, the BOE and public in attendance were presented with lengthy series of misleading statements that were marked by their omissions, partial truths that were delivered with a smile and disarming reassurance.
The State Education Commissioner (Dr. Dianna Wentzell), RÈSC (Regional Educational Service Center) administrator, and an attorney from CABE (CT Association of Boards of Education) - all steadfast promoters of the education reform agenda in CT - were joined on a panel by two district administrators and a classroom teacher, moderated by the district school superintendent. Since a large percentage (48 percent overall, 57 percent of middle school group, the largest percentage in the state) of Sherman students across this small district refused to take last spring's SBAC test, it was incumbent on the state Department of Education to convince the parents of these students and the older students themselves that they should comply with federal test accountability requirements. Their presentation was startlingly disingenuous: never referencing the nationwide controversy associated with this testing, misleading those listening as to transparency of privacy policies, and implying that there could be serious financial consequences for future test refusals.
The series of prepared questions presented by the superintendent to the "expert panel" included how to explain the newly-named Connecticut Core Standards and how they would be evaluated; the legal grounds of local BOEs relative to test compliance mandates; what was the "actual origin" of the Common Core Standards; who stands to profit from testing; and what about privacy and data-mining.
The panelists responded with partial truths that displayed their compliant acceptance of the unsubstantiated underlying premises promoted by the education reform industry. In claiming that the Common Core was developed by thousands of persons (though admittedly "not enough K-3 representation"), Dr. Wentzell misrepresented the universal understanding of the test industry's lead role in developing the standards, after all, that's "not unusual in standards development actually," she said.
Further claiming that the SBAC tests were developed with hundreds of Connecticut educators working with the SBAC development team was undoubtedly exaggerated. Fortunately, she did not attempt to claim the SBAC test results as "valid, reliable and fair" as she had told the school superintendents in August. She must have received the memo that such a claim had been thrown out by a Missouri judge in a summary judgment against the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium.
Soon thereafter, the attorney for CABE advised the Sherman BOE that there was no legal requirement to implement the Common Core Standards, although she claimed the majority of local districts found the standards appropriate and were implementing them. The testing requirement, however, was a federal mandate demanding that the state administer an "approved exam" to 95 percent of all public school students.
The implication was that, although students would be tested on the Common Core Standards, a BOE would not have to adopt those standards. Don’t need to adopt, but if your students perform poorly, the district could be taken over by the state. Definitely a Catch-22. Bottom line, even though there is technically no state-required curriculum because those are "local decisions,” there is certainly pressure on BOEs and school administrators to comply.
As the evening wore on, the state department representatives and the local educators did their best to re-assure the BOE and audience that their students were protected and well-served. The district curricula specialist repeated the established "talking point" that the test score is "only one small part" of a student's performance profile. The local school personnel were, as would be expected, very positive about new curricular initiatives, the technological support provided during test administration, and the "relaxed atmosphere" in which the students took the untimed, computer adaptive SBAC test. No mention of the psychometric inadequacies of the SBAC or whether it even measures what the test company (for confusion's sake, let's call it a consortium) claims to measure.
A more tricky discussion ensued on student privacy and possible data-mining. Dr. Wentzell indicated that the Connecticut student data system is no different than it had been during CMT administrations, which may well be true, but doesn't really answer the question or reflect the need for any adjustments relative to increased technological capabilities and expectations. She went on to say that - in her opinion - the state department is "extremely conservative" in protecting data privacy, even "more so than is required by law" she reported. Of course, that is because there is no law protecting student data privacy in Connecticut.
The presiding attorney indicated that, in Connecticut, students had "double protection" by "specific statutory language" and because student data is "not public information under FOI [Freedom of Information Act].” Without saying it, they both seemed to feel that adequate protections were in place despite no changes since the CMT days relative to today's highly "hacked" technological climate. They admitted that, though they felt confident SBAC test results could not be data-mined, schools and parents had to be careful in protecting students from many other software programs that did not have such protections.
As for teacher evaluations tied to student test results, the state does not require a certain percentage at this time, but that does not mean local districts can't require it if they so choose. For now, the federal government has "delayed that requirement", but we will have to wait on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) re-authorization - currently known as No Child Left Behind - before we will know how to move forward. "Teachers can trust us," stated a local administrator. No discussion of the research-based inadequacies of the widely discredited VAM (value-added model) algorithms. No professional opinions put forth. Implication is that, if required to comply, we will certainly acquiesce.
When asked about potential consequences of a low participation rate, Dr. Wentzell expressed relief that the state average met the 95 percent federal requirement. Her presence was intended to convince parents to allow their students to take the SBAC test next year. Although the superintendent informed Sherman residents that this meeting was intended to educate the BOE, Dr. Wentzell addressed the audience all night. She implied that a "pattern of low participation" could result in withholding of Title 1 funding. She did not, however, tell parents that they could not refuse to have their children take the test; she simply did not address the issue.
As designed, public participation was limited to three minutes for Sherman residents only. First up, a school administrator from a neighboring district sang the praises of the Common Core Standards and the aligned testing. A resident asked about upcoming 11th-grade use of the SAT and the panel was unwilling to inform the audience that David Coleman, the renowned "architect of the Common Core Standards,” was now leading the College Board which oversees not only the newly-designed SAT, but all Advanced Placement tests, the PSAT/NMSQT (for qualifying as a National Merit Scholar), the traditional PSAT, and more. He had been hired, of course, to improve the College Board’s diminishing market share as more and more colleges and universities are no longer requiring test information because they know it is least revealing of how a student will perform in college.
A student from neighboring New Milford High School was allowed to speak on behalf of her Sherman classmates and expressed the frustration that students were having with instructional lessons geared toward telling them what to think rather than encouraging them to think for themselves. Another parent asked specifically about the loss of privacy protections; she had been particularly alarmed to learn that parents were unaware “that 22 private companies as subcontractors to AIR” (American Institutes of Research) had access to “enormous amounts of student data” without parental notification or disclosure. Even though Dr. Wentzell attempted to refute that point, it is truly hard to know where the truth lies on these contentious issues, but clearly the bully pulpit belonged to the forces of education reform this evening.
Partial Truths. Half Truths. Three-quarter Truths. No Truth. Who is to say? The whole truth was not in evidence tonight. Good people, informed people can disagree. However, it seems to me that those professionals charged with leading our State educators and elected BOE members should give all sides of such a contentious debate, not simply sell a predetermined message. No mention of the raging controversy surrounding the SBAC test. Not the kind of professional leadership I expect from my State education leaders. Lots said, more left out. Their disingenuousness lies in what was not said. Sad night for full and honest disclosure. Hopefully their mission was not accomplished.
Since the courageous parents and students of the Sherman Public Schools pushed-back against the unproven and invalid SBAC tests in ways comparable to our determined ancestors at Lexington and Concord 240 years ago, the proverbial shots have been heard around the state. As government forces double-down by misleading, exaggerating, and blindly promoting misguided public policies, think biblically of David against Goliath, think cinematically of Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader and the Evil Empire. Our history abounds with examples of individual's protecting their rights for freedom and liberty against the forces of greed, corruption, and the arrogance of entrenched power.