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.

Connecticut school psychologist John Bestor on the NEW SAT and opting-out

You can read a number of fellow education advocate John Bestor’s commentary pieces here at Wait, What? and in other Connecticut media outlets.

John has become a leading voice in the effort to provide students, parents, teachers and other citizens with the truth concerning our public schools and the ongoing efforts of the corporate education reform industry to undermine public education in Connecticut and across the country.

In one of his recent articles entitle, The SAT: Should Connecticut students opt out, or not?, which was first published in the CT Mirror, John Bestor explains some of the issues surrounding the NEW SAT.

The SAT: Should Connecticut students opt out, or not? by John Bestor

Last year, hundreds of 11th-grade students across Connecticut refused to take the mandated SBAC test.  Knowing that they had no control over independent-minded 11th-graders, the governor and State Department of Education sought a waiver from Washington, D.C., for permission to offer what they hoped would be a more palatable test: the SAT. It is a test many high school students would have been taking eventually in order to meet some college admission expectations.

Now, nearly a year later, another group of high school juniors are faced with making the decision to either take the test or opt-out.

As in any highly contentious debate, there is a great deal of misinformation about the new “CT school-day SAT state assessment” that will be rolled out for the first time on March 2, (with a make-up day scheduled for April 27).  Students and parents who have paid close attention to this controversy over this redesigned SAT test are in a quandary because some test-prep and college guidance experts are advising students to hold off as the first time a test is used is bound to be problematic, and the test results will still become part of a student’s SAT test profile.

At the same time, some district educational leaders are threatening that students will not graduate if they don’t take the test, even though such threats are illegal since students and parents have the constitutional right to refuse such government-imposed coercion.

FAQs, though clearly needed, are elusive.

From the CT State Department of Education testing website

⇒ The new SAT is required to meet the federal accountability 95% Test Participation Rate as mandated by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act law.

⇒ There will be three sections to the redesigned SAT: Reading, Writing and Language, and Mathematics, but the “essay portion of the SAT will not be administered as a part of the CT school-day SAT state assessment.”

[The CSDE FAQ sheet indicates that, in Connecticut, only Yale requires the SAT optional essay, while leaving unsaid the fact that many colleges and universities (like Wesleyan, Connecticut College, and others) no longer require any SAT test scores at all because their college admissions’ officers have found such scores as a poor indicator of college success.]

⇒ There will be two types of scores obtained on the CT school-day SAT state assessment:  a “reportable score” that can be sent to colleges and will also fulfill “state accountability purposes.”  And a “nonreportable score” that will not be sent to colleges, but “will be used for state accountability purposes only.”  This nonreportable score is undoubtedly the rigorous Common Core-aligned cut-score of proficiency standard to be determined sometime after the test results are reported.  

[As an aspiring applicant to a “reach” college, I would not want to explain to an Admission Officer that, even though I had obtained respectable scores, I had failed to meet the arbitrary cut-score established after the fact to maintain this fiction of Common Core rigor.] 

Of course, according to the CSDE FAQ sheet, a “student can elect to have their SAT score cancelled immediately after test administration,” so that “colleges will not receive the scores for that administration, however, the student and state will still receive their scores.”  

[Again, I would not want to explain to any Admission Officer why I had cancelled out my SAT score, and once that score is available it will be extremely difficult to protect it from unwanted access.  This “nonreportable score” will surely be reported in your cumulative record, downloaded into the school data-storage system, and shared with whatever agencies are entitled to or can gain access; it is not honest to call it “nonreportable.”]

⇒ Accommodations for special needs students “must be approved through The College Board SSD process, even when the student receives these accommodations in school” through his/her IEP or 504 Plan.

[Certainly sounds discriminatory to youngsters with well-established learning difficulties and others struggling to perform at grade level.]

On The College Board’s college-readiness website, “A Partnership for Student Success” reads like a polished marketing brochure: it promotes a number of claims that are both unproven and lacking in substance.

⇒ “The new SAT measures the skills and knowledge that colleges are looking for today”, even though many of them no longer value or require such test results.

 The new SAT measures “what Connecticut students are already learning in the classroom,” {despite claims by teachers that the Common Core Standards have been unevenly incorporated into public school instruction across the state. ]

⇒ The new SAT “has recently been redesigned for greater focus, relevance, and transparency,” [except that this test is so new that its psychometric properties, validity and reliability remain unproven and The College Board maintains proprietary control of the test itself.]

⇒  The new SAT, “when used in combination with high school GPA, SAT scores are shown to be the best predictor of a student’s likelihood for success in college,” [even though recent college admissions’ practices refute this unsubstantiated claim.]

While The College Board and its president, David Coleman, the architect of Common Core, is focused on increasing its dwindling market share, many colleges and universities have moved away from reliance on such test scores in their admission policies.

Now that you know the FAQs, you will have to decide whether it is in your best interest to take this new Connecticut school-day SAT state assessment…

…an assessment that remains in the fire-storm associated with government-mandated test participation rates preventing you from receiving honest feedback from your teachers and building administrators…

…a new CT school-day SAT state assessment that has not been properly field-tested as a valid and reliable test measure.

Any form of a SAT test is universally accepted as a rite of passage for students applying to college.  It is so important in the minds of many students that the pressure to do well leads to untold millions of dollars spent on private tutoring and test prep courses; medications taken to relieve anxiety and stress and/or improve alertness and attention; and therapy.

Are you really willing to believe the political posturing and bureaucratic claims that, in essence, come down to obtaining one data point in order to meet the all-important 95% Test Participation Rate required by the Every Student Succeeds Act and the federal U.S. Department of Education?

You will have to decide. After all, it is your future they are tinkering with.

 

Look Out Parents – Malloy’s State Department of Education is ramping up Pro-Common Core Testing Campaign

If you weren’t at the “Special” Sherman Board of Education meeting last Thursday you missed the “show.”

Big Brother is Watching and Big Brother is not Happy!

As Connecticut is swamped by yet another state budget crisis and Democrat Governor Dannel Malloy unilaterally makes deep cuts to some of State Government’s most vital services, the Governor’s Education Commissioner is finding the resources to engage in a campaign to persuade parents that the Common Core Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium SBAC testing scheme is good and they should not be opting their children out of the unfair, inappropriate and discriminatory tests.

Last week began with the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Deputy Commissioner, Ellen Cohn, telling school superintendents that “correction action plans” will be implemented in towns where too many parents opted their children out the tests and that the Malloy administration would be mobilizing to “help educate” parents and communities where parents had stood up against the SBAC testing program.

Later in the week, Malloy’s Commissioner of Education, Diane Wentzell, focused the state’s bullseye on the small town of Sherman, Connecticut with its 380 or so elementary school students.

Although Malloy and the Department of Education spent nearly two years lying and misleading Connecticut parents about their fundamental right to opt their children out of the Common Core SBAC testing madness, nearly half of the students in Sherman’s school were opted out of the SBAC testing last spring, making it the elementary school with the highest opt out rates in the state and among Connecticut’s 25 top schools when it came to the percent of students being opted out.

The notion that parents understand that Common Core SBAC testing is undermining public education was just too much for the State to handle and last Thursday, after communications that the State Department of Education has yet to release a response to a Freedom of Information request, the Sherman Board of Education held a “special meeting” to “focus solely on a presentation to the Board of Education by our superintendent, Don Fiftal, and a panel of educational experts to provide direct and up-to-date information about the Connecticut Common Core Standards and the SBAC Assessments.”

Headlining the panel was Commissioner Dianna Wentzell and the Chief Counsel for the Connecticut Boards of Education and former State Board of Education member, Patrice McCarthy, as well as others.  Wentzell and McCarthy are among the state’s strongest proponents of the Common Core, Common Core testing and Governor Malloy’s other “education reforms.”

The “panel” to “educate” Sherman about the Common Core tests did not include an opponent of the testing mandate and parents and public education advocates from out-of-town were instructed that they were not allowed to speak or ask questions at the “special meeting.”

With no mass media coverage of the event in Sherman, Connecticut parents might never have even known about the Malloy’s administration growing PR campaign in favor of the SBAC tests, but thankfully a number of public education advocates attended the meeting and in a piece entitled, “A Different Perspective on the 9/24/15 Sherman “Special” BOE Meeting,” Jack Bestor, a recently retired and award winning school psychologist who worked for 41 years with students, parents, and teachers in the Westport Public Schools has provided us with a summary of what the authorities said in Sherman last week.

In addition to receiving the CT Association of School Psychologists Life-Time Achievement Award, Jack Bestor has written numerous commentary pieces about the dangers associated with corporate education reform for the CT Mirror, CT Newsjunkie and Wait, What?  Bestor also wrote an opinion piece in the March/April 2014 NASP Communique (the newspaper of the National Association of School Psychologists) entitled: “Common Core Standards Do Not Serve the Educational Needs of Children.”

A Different Perspective on the 9/24/15 Sherman “Special” BOE Meeting.  By Jack Bestor

The Sherman BOE did itself and the citizens of Sherman a huge disservice at its “special meeting” on September 24, 2015, 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% overall, 57% 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 CT 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 CT 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% 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 CT 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 CT.  The presiding attorney indicated that, in CT, 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% 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.  As so eloquently expressed in the movie All the Presidents Men: “Follow the money” … just follow the money, folks, it bears repeating.   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 twenty-two 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.