Op-Ed: Smart money is on Connecticut’s children, not testing

As the debate over Connecticut’s state budget looms, the legislature must consider smart ways of maintaining support for our state’s children and families. They must also figure out how to save while doing the least harm.

Reducing the number of standardized tests that kids take could be a way to save more for what matters most in education.

Op-ed submit bugFor years, Connecticut required students to take tests in only grades four, six, eight, and ten. In order to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Connecticut began giving tests to all children in grades three through eight and ten. Twice the number of children tested and new tests equaled more money spent. State spending for the tests more than doubled from $5.3 million in 2005 to $13.4 million in 2006.

Recently, the State of Connecticut allocated more than $18 million each year for tests. However, this amount does not reflect the hidden costs of spending on test preparation. With Connecticut’s No Child Left Behind waiver, both the amount of testing, consequences, and funds to impose the controversial “Common Core” will likely increase.

Reducing the tests that students take in each subject to only grades four, six, eight, and ten could save millions of dollars. The funds saved could help limit any budget cuts that will affect communities across the state, particularly for the most vulnerable children and families.  Cutting testing in this way could also result in yearly savings of up to $9.5 million. That’s half of current state spending to administer the tests.

At best, the evidence is mixed regarding the impact of spending more on testing and ratcheting up punishments. Here are some trends:

  • Same data: With the exception of a few new features, the State reports and uses nearly the same type of test information today as it did more than a decade ago.
  • Addition through subtraction: Increases in test results over the last decade didn’t happen until students with disabilities (mostly low-income, Black and Latino children) were removed from regular tests.
  • Same disparities: The results of the “low-stakes,” sample-based National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have shown high overall test results of children in Connecticut, but little diminishing of race and class-based disparities. This historical pattern remains even after more than a decade of increased testing and punishments.
  • Collateral damage: Curriculum hours in Connecticut narrowed to focus on the tested subjects. Students spent more time taking and practicing for tests throughout the year, taking away time for instruction.

The State now uses the test results to rate students, schools, districts, and teachers.

This isn’t educational progress.

Children best develop their abilities, talents, and interests when their schools, parents, educators, and communities support them together. In school, this would mean focusing on quality teaching and leadership, building on children’s academic strengths and interests, developing balanced and culturally relevant curriculum, confronting racial and economic isolation, and standardizing fairness in resources and support.

Outside of schools, this means supporting the well-being of children and families. In places likes Finland, the investment in children and families health and well-being, in addition to fairness in school resources and quality, has resulted in educational equity and shared prosperity. Instead of building up our system of testing, we must build up our system of support for communities.

Helping kids inside and outside of school. That’s a winning strategy.

With limited testing, there could be more time and funds for supporting kids’ academic progress and development. Time not used for testing could go towards building on children’s academic strengths and talents. Funds saved could mitigate cuts to schools, like the disappearing library, and supports for communities’ economic progress, health, and well-being.

With less testing, we can focus on support for students and develop better methods to assess the goals of public education. Maybe we can save even more as we recognize that public education will be better with more attention to learning and support for communities, but limited testing every two or three grades.

Critics might say, “We need testing to help kids!”

In response, I would ask, “Who is actually being helped?”

In addition to the negative results of testing expansion, consider these facts. There are at least 60 public schools in Connecticut that do not get annual high-stakes tests. These mostly suburban schools are still educating kids. Second, Connecticut has not required a high-stakes test since March 2013 in any school. The sky hasn’t fallen.

The smart money is on communities and support for kids, not tests.

Robert Cotto, Jr., is a lecturer in educational studies at Trinity College and an elected member of the Hartford Board of Education. 

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