Local school board unhappy with rapid state mandates

WALLINGFORD — From a new teacher evaluation program and curriculum to an adaptive computerized standardized test, there are plenty of changes happening in school systems across the entire state. But the loose ends and unanswered questions are disconcerting, according to the Board of Education.

“Something isn’t quite working fast enough because it’s not complete enough,” said board member Christine Mansfield.

“Is it happening fast enough with the right pieces? No. No one is comfortable yet.”

For the past two years, Wallingford schools, as well as other school systems in the state, have been making the transition to Common Core State Standards. The standards were adopted by the state Board of Education in 2010 and establish what a student should know from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The Board of Education also had to adopt a new teacher evaluation program last year, change the present curriculum to align with the new standards and make sure schools were technologically prepared for the Smarter Balanced assessment — the new standardized test that will replace the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test.

Transitioning to the new standards resulted in a drop in test scores for the CMT, which administrators said was expected since the test doesn’t line up with the new curriculum.

As board members analyzed the new changes during a meeting this week, they publicly expressed their worries and frustration with the state saying too many of the details remain unclear. The adaptive computerized test will launch during the 2014-15 school year, but if a flexibility waiver is granted, school systems will have the option of administering the test this spring.

Doing so, however, will leave school systems without any testing data until next fall. The data will be completely different from what the CMT results show, but everything else remains unclear, including how it will accurately measure a student’s growth.

“It’s teasing to give a piece of it and not have a way to measure it,” Mansfield said.

As for an accurate portrayal of student performance on the test, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said it won’t be until 2017 before the “truest measure” will be available.

The data for the 2015 test will be the baseline and it will be difficult to tell if the data were affected because a student lacked the knowledge or didn’t know how to use the computer. The test data for the following year, 2016, would present the first opportunity of getting a clear measure, Menzo said. By 2017, “districts across the country will know how the assessment works and what we need to do to better understand the technology and curriculum,” he said.

While data for the spring pilot test won’t be released for another year, Menzo said it’s important to participate because it allows school systems to make changes based on student feedback before the official test rolls out.

For board member Michael Votto, however, the state is mandating too many changes in too few steps. Last year, the board voted to adopt the state’s new model for teacher evaluations known as the System for Educator Evaluation and Development, or SEED. But the board voted to adopt the plan because of a deadline imposed by the state, and members have problems with the fact that almost a quarter of a teacher’s evaluation is based on standardized test results.

According to state Department of Education communications director Kelly Donnelly, 110 school systems in the state adopted the state model. Of those 110, 40 use it for all staff, while 70 school systems use it for partial staff, she said by email in response to a series of Record-Journal questions. Donnelly did not respond to other questions.

With the new curriculum, some teachers are teaching material they’ve never taught before. Votto believes teachers should have a year to get comfortable with the new curriculum and be evaluated with the school system’s own evaluation plan, which was adopted two years ago, he said. The following year, after teachers are used to the Common Core, they should be evaluated with the new program, Votto said.

“Anyone who is conscientious is going to be stressed at the fact that they’re going to be impacted or affected because their student didn’t know the material,” Votto said. “ ... Any employer wants their employees to feel at ease in their job, you get more out of them.”

Board member Chet Miller said he hopes the state decides to give the Common Core a chance, rather than trying something new in the future. Miller observed how all the work being done translates into a lot of money being spent. Historically, Miller said, a number of changes have occurred because the state commissioner of education or the federal Department of Education “opted for a newer approach.”

“There’s been so many of them only in the last few years and they cast it out and they say this isn’t working fast enough or not working good enough. We’re throwing money down the sewer,” Miller said. “I’m hoping somebody along the way will say, ‘Hey, let’s give it a chance. Let’s stay the course and give it 20 years.”

While she has her concerns, Mansfield said something has to be done with the curriculum. As a business owner — she owns Discovery Training, which trains people on computer software — Mansfield has worked with students who are lacking basic skills.

During Tuesday’s meeting, she told board members how only seven out of 80 kids brought into Vinny’s Deli were able to count change

While they were uncomfortable with the number of the changes, board members and administration agreed that the direction the school system is heading in is the right one. With the new curriculum, students will be better prepared for the future after high school.

But for now, Wallingford and the rest of the state are in a waiting game with the Department of Education.

“A wait and see attitude is very difficult when you’re talking about our future. These are the kids making decisions for us,” Mansfield said. “We can’t be satisfied with mediocrity on a test, and that’s where our taxpayers, parents and kids deserve it.”

evo@record-journal.com (203) 317-2235 Twitter: @EricVoRJ



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