High-Scoring Connecticut Says Scores Aren't Everything

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With Connecticut's students now deep in the midst of their state's testing season, state education officials are urging school leaders and the public to avoid going overboard in worrying about the results.

Theodore S. Sergi

In its first meeting this school year, the Connecticut board of education approved a statement aimed at putting the student assessments into perspective. The document, titled "Measuring Success," stresses that while test scores should inform decisions about instruction, they aren't the only indicators of a school's performance, nor do they cover all the areas in which educators should be helping students excel.

"There is a danger," the statement says, "that overemphasizing state test scores to evaluate a student's, a school's, or a district's performance can result in an inappropriate narrowing of the curriculum and inappropriate classroom instructional practices."

The caution echoes many of the concerns voiced elsewhere recently by commentators, parents, and grassroots groups worried that the push for standards-based school improvement may be yielding unintended consequences. But Connecticut's warning, some analysts say, is particularly striking given that it comes from the very agency that administers the state exams, and given how well the state performs on such assessments.

"If it were a low-performing state that said this, it might sound like an excuse," said Emily O. Wurtz, a senior education associate for the National Education Goals Panel, based in Washington. "But there are no excuses here. This state is doing very well."

No other state currently outranks Connecticut in 4th grade reading and mathematics, and in 8th grade writing, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And while Connecticut also enjoys the nation's highest per capita income, the gains it has posted on NAEP in recent years suggest that affluence alone cannot fully explain its success.

For the most part, the state has favored a relatively low-stakes accountability system, beginning in the mid-1980s with the introduction of the Connecticut Mastery Tests, given each fall in reading, writing, and math in the 4th, 6th, and 8th grades. The state has not, for example, required students to pass an exam to graduate from high school.

Even still, many educators there say that anxiety over test results has intensified in recent years.

Last year, the state published a list of its 28 lowest- performing schools. It also released an index allowing each district to compare its performance with other systems in the state, based on a single number—an index the state chose not to report again this year.

'Call for Balance'

State Commissioner of Education Theodore S. Sergi said "Measuring Success" is a "call for balance." Though the state's tests were instituted to identify areas for improvement, he said, the climate of competition that surrounds them isn't always healthy.

"The more you start to use the tests for lists of schools, and for rankings of schools, and to identify students for graduation, you start to stray away from the purpose of the program," he said. "We do believe that you can have strong accountability and a focus on achievement, without the nastiness and the harm."

The Connecticut board's statement also stresses the importance of skills not tested by the state—such as artistic and athletic ability, along with knowledge of science and a foreign language.

But while praising the statement, some school leaders wonder how much effect it will have.

"It's still a Catch- 22," said Principal Plato Karafelis, who heads Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford. "The standards movement is what the public wants, because this gives them a number, which forces districts to narrow their curriculum so they can deliver the number. And then the state board has to issue this kind of a statement."

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Page 19

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as High-Scoring Connecticut Says Scores Aren't Everything
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