Dear Connecticut students,

Last Friday, during a town hall meeting at the Classical Magnet School in Hartford with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and assorted other luminaries of the Connecticut political firmament, one of you — Justin Vega — raised a great point with Secretary Duncan.

According to a CT Mirror report, Vega told Duncan that he felt “as if all the time and money spent on standardized testing has compromised the quality of his education.”

The responses given by both Governor Malloy and Secretary Duncan provided us all with a teachable moment in politics, critical thinking, research, statistics, and media literacy.

Malloy warned Vega that Hartford schools could potentially have a 40 percent dropout rate and said:  “We have to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen. We need a multifaceted approach which doesn’t overemphasize [testing],” the CT Mirror reported.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from parenting my own kids is that they learn as much from what I do as from what I say. They don’t hesitate to point out when there is a discrepancy between my words and my actions. I ask them to do it politely. It’s important they respect my authority, but in order to maintain a healthy relationship, it’s equally as important that they question it, particularly if my words and actions don’t ring true. The same is true of democracy.

So ask yourselves — is this the same Governor Malloy who said, like the NWEA MAP and the Common Core alignment field test. What’s more, the stakes of those test results are even higher as a result of the governor’s education reform bill, which ties your teachers’ tenure and pay to your test results. It looks like Malloy is going to get what he wants. You’re going to be taught to the tests instead of getting the kind of education I was fortunate enough to receive, one that encouraged me to think critically, ask questions, read for the love of reading, and to want to be a lifelong learner.

Not to be outshone by Governor Malloy, Secretary Duncan agreed there should be balance and went on to claim that when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, “he cut the amount of standardized testing by 50 percent,” the CT Mirror reported.

Well I am no longer a teen, but my antennae still buzz when there’s a discrepancy between words and actions. And the policies that Duncan has presided over as U.S. Secretary of Education, like Reach to the Top and the Common Core Curriculum, place increased emphasis on standardized testing, and with higher stakes.

So I started doing some research.

It turns out that Duncan, who led the Chicago schools from 2001 through 2008, was taking credit for eliminating the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The Iowa test was used by his predecessor in Chicago, Paul Vallas (does that name ring a bell?), to retain students in 3rd, 6th and 8th grade. The Iowa test was 135 minutes of annual standardized testing, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research and other published descriptions of the Iowa test battery.

Duncan didn’t nix the Iowa test because of any great belief in over-testing, as he may have led you to believe, but rather he did it because Chicago students were moving to another test — the ISAT, or Illinois Standards Achievement Test — to conform with the provisions of No Child Left Behind.

What he neglected to mention was that “the ISAT takes longer to complete than the Iowa test, with more than twice as much time in reading, and half again as much time in mathematics,” according to the nonpartisan Consortium on Chicago School Research report. The consortium puts the ISATs at 240 minutes annually.

Maybe Duncan was confused and comparing the Iowa Tests to another standardized test — the
Stanford Learning First Formative Classroom Assessment System — that he also implemented in Chicago at the same time he cut the Iowa Tests. The Stanford tests, administered three times a year in October, January and May, total 120 minutes for the year. That’s marginally shorter than the Iowa — by all of 15 minutes.

Giving up the Iowa tests (-135) for the ISATs (+240) and Stanford (+120) leaves us with a net gain of 225 minutes of standardized testing per year for a total of 360 minutes. It takes some creative math to suggest that a net gain of 225 minutes per year is a 50 percent reduction.

I did try to check with Duncan about this discrepancy, but I didn’t receive any response.

Consider this also, my friends: Duncan is pushing education reform based on the model he and his predecessor, Vallas, implemented in Chicago. “I am eager to apply some of the lessons we have learned here in Chicago, we have worked with a sense of urgency, because we can’t wait,” he said at the press conference announcing his appointment by President Barack Obama, held in front of one of his great “success” stories, Dodge Renaissance Academy. Yet, this month Chicago Public Schools announced Dodge Renaissance would be closed and reopened at another location, disrupting families and communities — again.

This move came despite the research published in a 2009 report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which found “few effects, either positive or negative, of school closings on the achievement of displaced students.” The consortium attributed this to the fact that students were being shuffled from one low-achieving school to another. “Only 6 percent of displaced students enrolled in academically strong schools, while 42 percent of displaced students continued to attend schools with very low levels of academic achievement,” the consortium wrote. That’s a lot of community upheaval for very little gain.

And all those expensive tests they’re making you take? Have they actually proved effective? Not according to a study by the National Research Council, reported in the Huffington Post.

“None of the studies that we looked at found large effects on learning, anything approaching the rhetoric of being at the top of the international scale,” said committee member Kevin Lang, who also chairs the Economics Department at Boston University. The most successful NCLB programs the committee studied moved student performance by just eight hundredths of the standard deviation.

“These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze,” explained Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. “We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that.”

Indeed. That’s how I feel about you. That’s how your teachers feel about you. We don’t view you as data sets. And unlike the consultants and the testing companies, we’re not in this to make a profit from your time in school, either.

And therein lies perhaps the most important lesson you’ll take away from this experience — more important than speaking to the governor of Connecticut or the U.S. Secretary of Education, even though they are Really Important Men.

Really Important Men — especially politicians — don’t always tell you the truth. Make sure you pay attention when your math teacher discusses statistics, so that you can learn how numbers can be manipulated and cherry-picked for political purposes.

Don’t let them test away your critical thinking skills. Ask questions and do your own research. Find primary sources. Justin Vega, you are spot on. Overuse of standardized testing IS compromising the quality of your education, and that makes me furious. Keep asking questions and speaking out. And make sure your parents consider these factors when they vote — as do you, when you get the ballot.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.