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Educators struggle with test mandates

Published 12:19 pm, Saturday, May 4, 2013
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The state recently gave public schools the go-ahead to administer Connecticut's new online practice exam last week.

The Common Core State Standards Aligned Practice Assessment test is designed to assess students according to the Common Core State Standards, a set of educational standards that have been adopted nationally by 45 states (and four territories and the District of Columbia).

"The Common Core State Standards focus on core conceptual understandings and procedures starting in the early grades, thus enabling teachers to take the time needed to teach core concepts and procedures well -- and to give students the opportunity to master them," according to the Common Core website.

Connecticut adopted the standards on July 7, 2010, and they are set to go into effect next year, during the 2013-2014 school year.

The gist of the Common Core seems to be to focus, at least in part, on training students to think analytically.

"When reading texts, kids oftentimes might have gone to experiences they've had," Mary Beth Wilson, superintendent of curriculum for New Canaan Public Schools said, explaining an older model of test question. "While that's valuable, the way the shift is occurring is to keep focused more on the text itself, rather than extrapolating from personal experience." She added that students might be asked to explain what a character might be thinking or feeling, rather than what the student herself is thinking or feeling.

She said that the district is not rewriting its curriculum, but rather is in a process of continually reflecting on, and altering what it teaches.

While Wilson remained calm, teachers in other parts of the state are stressing out over the changes.

"This is one of the most complicated transitions we've gone through," said Josh Smith, assistant superintendent of New Milford schools. "This is a transformation, and really does deepen how we teach and how students learn. We have to look at the long term, the big picture. It's good for students, but if you think shorter term, it's anxiety-provoking."

"School officials may be legitimately confused," said Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, the state Department of Education's chief academic officer. "We sent a memo last week, a heads-up to superintendents, that we are working to align our assessments to the Common Core standards."

Confusion, in part, comes because educators aren't sure what tests their students will take next spring. Students in third through eighth grade might take the existing Connecticut Mastery Test, or high school sophomores might take the Connecticut Academic Performance Test as they have in the past -- though neither test is aligned to the Common Core -- if Connecticut does not create a new state test to replace them.

The pilot provides students practice in the adaptive test format, which adjusts questions, making them easier or harder based on a student's earlier responses, and shortening the time needed to assess performance.

New Canaan's Wilson took a wait-and-see attitude on the new standards.

"I think it's too early to tell. I think we'll know more after the practice assessment piece."

eileenf@newstimes.com; 203-731-3333