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Teachers Worry Tying Test Scores to Evaluations Will Harm Connecticut's Urban Schools

Mar 18, 2016

Educators in urban areas are worried that if the state continues with its plan to eventually tie student test scores to evaluations, that nobody will want to teach in these cities.

The story is pretty much the same for most Connecticut cities -- student test scores in grades three through eight are among the lowest in the state.

Over three-quarters of Bridgeport students scored poorly on the statewide test last year.

Juanita Harris, a counselor at Danbury High School, said it's already difficult to attract teachers to urban schools. Tying test scores to evaluations will make it even harder.

"So when you have low scores and their tied to my evaluation, versus should I take a position in a suburban school where my test scores are tied into my evaluation -- to me, that's a no-brainer," Harris said.

In 2012, a group called the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, or PEAC, decided to let test scores account for a quarter of a teacher's entire evaluation.

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell is a PEAC member. She said communities that have low test scores have more room for growth, which is one of the main qualities the test is supposed to show.

"Because our emphasis is on growth, and because all growth matters, I think there's a lot less to be nervous about than some teachers think," Wentzell said. 

But attracting quality teachers, and keeping them, has been a problem in urban districts for decades. Harris and the state's largest teachers union are supporting legislation that would de-couple test scores from evaluations permanently.

While Commissioner Wentzell has publicly opposed this legislation, she agreed to postpone the state's plan to tie scores to evaluations for another year, citing the need to study the matter further.

Other Concerns

Teachers also said the statewide computer test, called the SBAC -- which has been touted as the best way to measure student growth -- does not live up to expectations. But state officials said that's a common misperception.

One of the test's biggest selling points was its adaptability. Every time a student gets a question right, the next question is a little harder. If they get it wrong, the following question gets easier. The goal was to enable schools to pinpoint where each student is, developmentally.

But recent criticism from the state's largest teachers union claimed the test isn't as adaptable, or reliable, as the state claims.

"The SBAC test only measures growth within the grade level," said Don Williams, a former legislator who now works for the Connecticut Education Association.

"If you're in the seventh grade, and you're on the fifth grade level, that test is not going to measure growth from the fifth grade to the seventh," Williams said. "It's just going to show consistently that the student is not at grade level."

Williams cited a study commissioned by the people who helped developed SBAC, that described this discrepancy:

...the test will not measure the actual skill levels of students whose achievement is far above or far below their grade levels, since they will not encounter many items that accurately measure their actual levels of achievement. Thus, while the test will accurately describe the student’s knowledge of grade level and near–grade level content, the test will not be as sensitive a measure of growth for these students.

So for schools that have students who traditionally score low on tests -- like urban districts, for example -- it's hard to know if students are learning anything based on the test results, according to Williams.

But that's not really how it works, Commissioner Wentzell said.

"Even if by next year, they are still in the lowest level, we can measure their upward growth," she said.

Several states, including Connecticut, helped develop the SBAC, which has drawn heavy scrutiny since it was released last year. Wentzell said it's better than any other test the state has used.

"This reaches further both for our kids who have not yet reached grade level and for our kids who are beyond grade level," she said.

Students in grades three through eight started taking the SBAC last week, which tests math and English skills.