Mastery exam task force report due soon — its findings ‘predetermined’ by John Bestor

John Bestor, an educator and education advocate, recently wrote a piece for the CT Mirror educating readers about the farce called the Mastery Exam Tax Force.  The following is his commentary piece which you can read and comment on at: http://ctviewpoints.org/2017/01/04/mastery-exam-task-force-report-due-soon-its-findings-predetermined/

Mastery exam task force report due soon — its findings ‘predetermined’

In a few days the Mastery Examination Task Force will be submitting its Final Report and Recommendations to the Connecticut Legislature’s Education Committee which had asked for a study of student assessment practices in our public schools. Having monitored the progress of this task force during its one-and-a-half years of meetings, I contend that their findings were predetermined at or even before the task force began its deliberations.

My reasons for this presumption lie in 1) the composition of committee membership serving on the task force, 2) the choice of topics discussed, and 3) the available evidence that was purposefully withheld from task force consideration.

Just why is the final report and recommendations of the mastery examination task force so important?

For starters, it is a perfect example of much of what is wrong in government today and certainly in how education policy is developed in our state. As the 2015 legislative session drew to a close, the Education Committee of the legislature passed Public Act 15-238, An Act Concerning Student Assessments. It was stipulated that “the committee must study various aspects of Connecticut’s mastery test system” and report back to the Education Committee.

Our legislators responded to persistent parent and teacher concerns surrounding the efficacy of statewide student testing that had resulted in increased opting-out across our state as it had in many states across the country. As reported in the CT Mirror, the co-chairs of the Education Committee called for, in Sen. Gayle Slossberg’s words: “The group established by this legislation will look at a number of factors including age appropriateness of the exam and how much time it is taking students and report back to the legislature.”

Rep. Andy Fleischmann echoed her concerns, saying: “We are hearing that children are spending days and days with the SBAC exam. We have to find out if it’s a good exam in terms of its impact on students and teachers.”

Unfortunately, the very design of the Task Force itself doomed this committee from the start, since the Education Committee stipulated that specific education stakeholder groups would be represented on the task force. As a result, the same group of “education reform” advocates found themselves — once again — on an influential committee that was tasked with determining the future course of what student testing in our state would look like for years to come.

The Mastery Examination Task Force was comprised of four members from the State Department of Education including the Commissioner herself as chair, two representatives from the State Board of Education, two from the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, two from the CT Association of Public School Superintendents, two from the CT Association of Schools (which oversees The Principal’s Center), three from the CT Parent Teacher Association, and two chosen at-large by the Commissioner: the Executive Director of the CT Council for Education Reform and a Southern Connecticut State University professor with a math/technology background. Another appointed education leader who joined the task force after it had started represented the State Board of Regents for Higher Education. And, four representatives from the two professional teacher organizations were included on the task force.

By my calculation, task force members predisposed to maintaining (with some minor tweaks) the current statewide student assessment protocol outnumbered the teacher representatives, 18 to four.

S0, what are some of the initial concerns associated with statewide test practices that parents and teachers brought to their legislators?

Many had expressed concern:

  • That testing was taking valuable instruction time away from students.
  • That young children were sitting for days taking high pressure tests that were not developmentally appropriate or meaningful in student learning.
  • That students were feeling stressed out over multiple days of high-stakes testing.
  • That daily school routines were disrupted by test prep, schedule changes for all students to ensure computer availability, and additional days of make-up testing for those who were absent.

Are the tests even sound? Controversies over validity, reliability, fairness, discriminatory practices have been made by critics of these statewide assessment protocols. Without consideration of all sides of this controversial test debate, the Mastery Examination Task Force has failed its mission and simply continues to fuel the many parents who refuse to allow their children to participate in these unproven statewide assessment practices.

Nowhere in the minutes of Task Force meetings is their evidence that the committee even acknowledged any findings that were contrary to its predetermined course. Although fully aware of Dr. Mary Byrne’s 2015 report to the Missouri legislature, entitled “Issues and Recommendations for Resolution of the General Assembly Regarding Validity and Reliability of the Smarter Balanced Assessments Scheduled for Missouri in Spring 2015”, SDE leadership of this Task Force failed to consider or review its revealing and compelling arguments.

Early in her report, Dr. Byrne writes: “No independent empirical evidence of technical adequacy is available to establish external validity and reliability of the SBAC computer-adaptive assessment system. Test scores derived from tests that have no demonstrated technical adequacy are useless data points, and plans to collect evidence of validity and reliability provide no assurance that technical adequacy will be established.” Appendix B of her report contains 18-pages that outline “Steps To Generate Evidence That Test Items Are Valid And Reliable.” Based on her research, Dr. Byrne had recommended that Missouri withdraw from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (which they subsequently did).

The Task Force also failed to review and discuss the research findings of over 100 California researchers who published “Research Brief #1” in February 2016, entitled “Common Core State Standards Assessments in California: Concerns and Recommendations.”

Writing as CARE-ED [California Alliance of Researchers for Equity in Education], these highly-regarded education research professionals confirmed what many others had been saying. “Testing experts have raised significant concerns about all (SBAC, PARCC, Pearson) assessments, including the lack of basic principles of sound science, such as construct validity, research-based cut scores, computer-adaptability, inter-related reliability, and most basic of all, independent verification of validity. Here in California, the SBAC assessments have been carefully examined by independent examiners of the test content who concluded that they lack validity, reliability, and fairness, and should not be administered, much less be considered a basis for high-stakes decision making.”

The waiver granted to the state that allowed the administration of the Statewide SAT to 11th grade students had been applauded by the CSDE as a worthy adjustment. But, just as they had ignored the revelations of SBAC critics, the Task Force refused to acknowledge or consider Manuel Alfaro’s series of posts in May and June, 2016.

As a former executive director of assessment design and development at The College Board, Alfaro raised serious concerns about the rushed and faulty psychometric development of the redesigned SAT. In his May 17 post, he stated that, despite public claims of transparency, “public documents, such as the Test Specifications for the Redesigned SAT contain crucial statements and claims that are fabrications.”

In a later post (5.26.16),  Alfaro reported that The College Board’s own Content Advisory Committee expressed concerns about “Item Quality,” “Development Schedule,” and “Development Process” which went unaddressed by College Board executives. Part Six (9.21.16) in a series of revealing reports by Renee Dudley in Reuters Investigates further reinforced many of Alfaro’s allegations and concerns as related to the redesigned SAT’s built-in unfairness to the neediest students taking the test.

To the best of my knowledge, this evidence — though readily available on the Internet — has not been considered or reviewed by this Task Force. For a group of educators and stakeholders promoting “rigorous” and “higher critical thinking skills” from our students, many of the Task Force members have been remarkably complicit in their acceptance of whatever agenda direction and sharing of information that SDE officials put forth.

These allegations deserve acknowledgement and review if there will be any expectation that the final recommendations from this Task Force are valued and accepted by the many parents who refuse to allow their children’s reading and math skills to be measured by these still unproven and controversial assessments. It is no surprise that only14 of the 32 states that had originally committed to SBAC continue to administer this flawed test.

One issue always left out of the assessment conversation is the historic role of testing in sustaining a discriminatory message that further promulgates ideas of inferiority, eugenics, and racial bigotry. Former President Bush’s catchy rhetoric of “soft bigotry of low expectations” belies the hard evidence associated with assessments in discriminatory practices across our country.

Continued reliance on the current statewide testing protocols only serves as a “rank and sort” mechanism that devalues our diversity, undercuts our essential humanity, and plagues our state and nation. The use of flawed test results to force school closures and encourage the proliferation of privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools is an outright disgrace.

Under whatever name you call it: “turnaround schools,” “Commissioner’s Network,” or “schools of choice,” the bottom line is that citizens in the communities designated as under-performing based on these inadequately-developed and unproven tests have been stripped of their civil rights.

As hard-pressed, economically-challenged communities are starved of financial resources, the ability of citizens to control the education destiny of their local schools is being systematically taken away from their duly elected public servants. It is imperative that Connecticut legislators no longer tolerate inadequately studied and one-sided committee recommendations, like the forthcoming Mastery Examination Task Force report, and stop colluding in the failed “corporate education reform” takeover of public education in our state.