Christine Stuart photo

The state’s largest teachers union asked lawmakers Monday to reduce “high-stakes” standardized tests, such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or SBAC test, and replace them with “progress tests.”

“A child is more than a test score,” Connecticut Education Association President Sheila Cohen said, “and the time is now for the General Assembly to act by phasing out SBAC and turning to a progress test already in use in Connecticut classrooms.”

SBAC is one of two multi-state consortia developing assessments based on the Common Core State Standards, which were developed under the leadership of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. This is the first year the SBAC test would be administered by Connecticut school districts.

“The test is time consuming and has not been verified,” CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg said Monday.

But it might not be that easy to eliminate such tests.

State Education Department spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said, “It’s important to remember, these are federally-mandated exams — and we believe in being smart about how we reduce anxiety associated with the tests, increase learning time, and ensure that we’re getting the job done in preparing students for success in college and careers.”

Eliminating these tests means Connecticut would lose its ability to compare its students with students across the nation and “our districts would lose the advantage of comparing how they perform compared to similar districts in other states,” Donnelly said.

But she also said the state Education Department is mindful of high-stakes testing and is working on ways to redesign the school and district accountability system in ways that go beyond just test scores and graduation rates and include multiple measures and pathways to demonstrate success. The state Education Department awarded $428,253 to 48 districts as part of the Assessment Reduction grant program.

“Tests are important tools in the teaching and learning toolbox that help track student progress towards success in college and careers. But it’s also important to ensure that the already crowded schedules of our students are not filled with too many tests,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Monday in a press release.

The CEA believes the best path forward is the progress test model.

The progress test model would provide a “photo album” of a student’s needs, academic knowledge, and growth, according to Waxenberg.

“Since they [progress tests] are already being used in our classrooms, this will result in a significant reduction in testing,” Waxenberg said. In addition, the CEA’s plan would create a mastery board of teachers and experts to evaluate existing and new progress tests annually.

Last year, 90 percent of state school districts said they would rather administer the SBAC test over the Connecticut Mastery Test. CEA officials stated that this was because the CMT was being phased out, but the SBAC test was poorly implemented and gave flawed information.

Waxenberg noted that the progress tests are composed of three brief, less-than-30-minute assessments, as opposed to the seven-hour SBAC tests. The mastery board created under the CEA’s plan would identify the progress tests that will replace SBAC and have them ready for implementation in the 2016-17 school year, he said.

“Voters are fed up. Precious instructional hours are being lost to unnecessary and duplicative testing, and they want precious instructional hours recaptured to help all children achieve higher levels of learning,” Cohen said.

CEA representatives said their proposal will reduce from 90 percent to 20 percent the amount that testing counts towards school quality. They hope that their proposal will establish Connecticut as a national leader in test reduction.

Citing a new poll, officials of the Connecticut Education Association said public support is on their side.

According to the poll of 500 likely voters, 64 percent of voters want their state legislators to vote for a bill to reduce the number of required standardized tests. Almost eight in 10 voters trust classroom-based information, such as performance and grades, over high-stakes testing to assess student learning. 

In an effort to win even more support for its position, CEA will launch a two-week $250,000 television campaign.

But not everyone agrees CEA’s approach is best for Connecticut.

Jeffrey Villar, executive director for the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, argued that SBAC represents dramatic steps forward in standardized testing.

“The CEA’s proposal forgets that standardized tests have an important place in education,” Villar said. Tests like SBAC give meaningful data that is easily comparable nationwide and allows teachers to see what their students are learning, he said. 

Villar agreed with the CEA to some degree that certain schools are focusing too heavily on test preparation and wasting valuable time in the classroom. But he said rather than eliminate standardized tests, schools should develop a curriculum that correctly prepares students for them.