One of the oft-stated goals of education reform is to ensure that students are “college and career ready.” Like “excellence,” it’s probably one of the most over-used phrases in the education reform movement.

But as I’ve asked before,  what does this phrase really mean? Do our policy makers even know? Judging by their actions of late, I’m starting to think they don’t.

On March 18, the window opens for field tests of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the computer-based adaptive test that will go live next year to replace the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT).

SBAC, or the Smarter Balanced Consortium, is one of the two consortiums that states have signed up with to develop new assessment systems for the Common Core State Standards. Funded by a four-year, $175 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education (which runs out in September of this year), SBAC claims its system “will measure mastery of the Common Core State Standards and provide timely information about student achievement and progress toward college and career readiness.”

But there’s a slight catch. They haven’t yet defined “college and career ready.”

“The Consortium also will establish performance benchmarks that define the level of content and skill mastery that marks students as college- and career-ready. These performance benchmarks will be determined through a deliberative and evidence-based standard-setting process, which will include input from K-12 educators and college and university faculty,” the website says. “Preliminary performance standards will be established in 2014 after student data have been collected through pilot and field testing. Following the Field Test in spring 2014, the Consortium will conduct standard setting for the summative assessments in grades 3-8 and grade 11 in ELA/literacy and mathematics. These performance standards will be validated in July/August 2015 using spring 2015 operational data.”

So basically the people who are pushing Common Core — Mssrs. Gates, Obama, Duncan et al, need our kids to be lab rats for this project, while their kids are safely ensconced in private schools, immune from such pedestrian concerns.

What does being an unpaid test subject for SBAC entail, exactly?

According to a parent presentation from Branford Public Schools, the field test will take 3.5 hours per subject.

That’s a lot of time taken away from learning — for what, exactly?

The Branford Public Schools presentation included this statement from Deborah S. Delisle, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education.

“A field test is not designed to be a valid and reliable measure of student achievement; rather, it is designed to help the test developers evaluate whether the tests, individual items, and the technology platform work as intended before the first operational administration.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents nationwide aren’t reacting well to the idea of their children being treated as unpaid lab rats for the educational testing complex. They are already seeing the negative effects of too much standardized testing on their kids, with too little of the promised benefits — and that’s before we even start looking at the excessive per pupil costs of implementing all these magical ed tech “solutions.” In what’s being termed the Education Spring, there’s a growing movement of parents seeking to opt their children out of standardized testing.

The State Department of Education appears to be getting desperate and is putting pressure down the line — as evidenced by a letter parents of Bethel High School students received in February:

“Unless we are able to field test students, we will not know what assessment items and performance tasks work well and what must be changed in the future development of the test . . . Therefore, every child’s participation is critical.

For actively participating in both portions of the field test (mathematics/English language arts), students will receive 10 hours of community service and they will be eligible for exemption from their final exam in English and/or Math if they receive a B average (83) or higher in that class during Semester Two.”

I think I’m beginning to see what the alleged adults at the state Board of Education see as “college and career ready” by the actions they are modeling for our children — because we all know that what we do influences our children far more than what we say.

They are modeling that there are shortcuts when you are in power, that if you are powerful you can offer . . . let’s call them “incentives” . . . to the less powerful to get your way. They are modeling that “community service” isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things, really.

What is “community service” after all? My mother and late father brought me up to believe that it was physically volunteering my time and effort on the behalf of the community in order to benefit the greater good. In Judaism, the word for “charity,” Tzedakah, is derived from the Hebrew root for righteousness, justice, or fairness.

As for exempting kids from taking finals — like most things edreform, it flies in the face of actual research. A three year study, Defining Promise: Optional Standardized Testing Policies in American Universities and Colleges found that high school grades remain the best predictor of college success as opposed to standardized test scores. So it makes little sense to exempt kids from taking finals so they can play guinea pig for a test consortium.

The message from the corporate interests seems pretty clear, as the Bethel school system tells its students. Just follow directions, perform an unnecessary task to help the corporate community, and we’ll let you off the hook when it comes to serving your fellow citizens through real community service.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

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Sarah Darer Littman

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of books for young people. Her latest novel, Some Kind of Hate, comes out Nov. 1 from Scholastic Press.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.