In many high schools across Connecticut, the month of May is largely dedicated to testing students. It starts with honor students taking Advanced Placement exams, followed by every junior taking the state’s Smarter Balanced Assessments and ends with students taking their end-of-course final exams.
“That is their schooling for the month of May,” Neil Sullivan, the principal of Simsbury High School, wrote the Connecticut State Department of Education last month. “I have to believe that we can do better. It is my hope that common sense will prevail on this issue.”
Legislative leaders agree, and momentum is building at the state Capitol to do away with the requirement that every junior take the Smarter Balanced Assessments, the controversial exams aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Instead, every student would take either the SAT or ACT college-entrance exam.
The Senate passed legislation to make the switch Thursday by a vote of 33-3. Supporters say the House will follow suit in the next few days.
“We are stressing our kids out. And by passing this legislation today we are going to take one step in a journey to bring back common sense to the classroom,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said during a press conference at the state Capitol Thursday before the Senate action.
Such a change would not be without some pushback from educators, among them the state’s education commissioner.
“If we are leaning toward this, there is risk involved,” Commissioner Dianna Wentzell on Tuesday told members of a task force appointed by the governor to explore 11th grade testing requirements.
Among her “major concerns” are the costs of switching exams; whether the College Board, which administers the SAT, would be able to provide appropriate accommodations for disabled students or those that speak limited English; and whether the federal government will approve of the change. The governor’s panel said this week the only way they could agree to the switch would be if all these concerns could be overcome.
“There are some hurdles to be cleared in order to do this next year. But if we can do this, we should,” Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said during an interview.
Not everyone is convinced, however.
“There’s this tremendous momentum to change and I don’t know that there is an understanding of what the impact would be,” said Karissa Niehoff, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools, which represents public school principals in the state. “One thing we are concerned about is the bigger picture. How quickly can we do this and maintain the integrity of why we are doing this?”
Why the SAT?
Twelve-thousand public school students in Connecticut graduate high school each year without ever taking the SAT.
Depending on the school, SAT participation rates range from 100 percent to only 23 percent. (See your school’s participation rates here.)
“These are the kids that we are worried about,” said Tom Moore, the superintendent of West Hartford Public Schools. “Every study says that taking the SAT makes college more realistic to students.”
After Maine began offering every student the SAT, college enrollment rates increased by 10 percent among students who probably would not have taken the exam, according to research done for the College Board and published in March in the peer-reviewed academic journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
To remove the obstacles students might face in taking a college-entrance exam, numerous states have began offering the ACT or SAT for free to every student during the school day. Sixteen states this spring offered either the ACT or SAT to all high school juniors, reports the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank that tracks education policy.
In Connecticut, 12 school districts offer the SAT to students during the school day for free.
“There were barriers that impeded students from participating. We wanted to mitigate most of them,” said Sonia Dinnall, the director of college and career readiness for Hartford Public Schools. When Hartford began offering the SAT for free, student participation increased from 61 percent among the Class of 2011 to 86 percent among the Class of 2013.
The Education Commission of the States report said that “many students — low-income or otherwise — are not aware that taking the ACT or SAT is a college entrance requirement… First-generation college students are more likely to be low-income and are less likely to have taken the ACT or SAT (meaning they are also less likely to enroll in four-year institutions).”
The idea of replacing the Smarter Balanced Assessment with an exam that research shows leads to increased college enrollment is appealing to legislators and educators.
“We are opening the door to college for students who might not otherwise have had access or the ability to take a college-readiness exam,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, the Senate chairman of the Education Committee.
This change also comes as large numbers of high school juniors in some districts are electing not to take the new Smarter Balanced Assessments [SBAC]. Educators say pushback is noticeable among 11th graders because they are so heavily tested.
“There are a significant number of students that have refused to take the test. They don’t see their use,” said Moore of West Hartford. Many students take the SAT seriously, however, since it impacts their college options.
The pushback has led legislators to seek the change in state law that would replace the SBAC with a college entrance exam, which would likely be either the SAT or ACT.
“There is broad support for this change,” Slossberg said during a press conference where both Democrats and Republicans spoke in support of it.
Testing students with special needs
The state’s standardized tests have always been in English. That changed this year when the new Smarter Balanced Assessments began offering students whose primary language is Spanish a test in their language.
“We didn’t know before if they didn’t know the math or didn’t know the English,” said Wentzell, the education commissioner.
One of the biggest concerns she has with switching to the SAT or ACT is that accommodations like these will not be available for special need students. Other accommodations offered with the Smarter Balanced testing for those with disabilities include computerized sign language and auditory reading.
“Part of making a test accessible to the child is to show what the child has learned when the handicap condition or the fact that they haven’t learned English yet is removed,” Wentzell said, pointing out that other tests are not comparable. “We can’t accommodate in the same way as they would be with the Smarter Balanced. There is a loss for some of our groups. It’s not insurmountable, you know, but it is moving backwards for our students with disabilities.”
The College Board declined to make someone available to be interviewed for this article.
Asked whether the College Board would be able to provide similar accommodations for English language learners and students with disabilities, spokeswoman Kate Levin provided this statement:
“Our researchers and assessment experts remain available to consult with decision makers in Connecticut as they consider different uses and approaches that are best suited to the state’s needs and are most effective for improvising student outcomes.”
Legislators said they have had conversations with representatives at the College Board and are hopeful they will be able to provide the necessary accommodations.
“We will have to ensure that there are in fact reasonable accommodations,” said Slossberg, who has a junior in high school this year. “That is actually in the legislation and it’s very important to us.”
Will the feds allow this switch?
Shadowing the debate over which test is best, is the concern that the federal government won’t even allow such a switch.
The federal government requires states to test students at least once in high school, though the decision on which test students take is a state decision as long as it meets certain criteria.
Responding to a letter Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wrote the U.S. Department of Education last fall informing them the state was exploring the possibility of switching exams, Assistant Secretary Deborah S. Delisle replied that federal law “requires students to be assessed using a statewide assessment once in tenth through twelfth grade; States have discretion to determine that assessment.”
A spokeswoman for the department said the tests states choose must meet certain criteria, however, including that the same test is administered to all students, that it is aligned with the state’s curriculum, is valid and reliable, and provides sufficient accommodations for all students.
Michigan and Illinois currently use the ACT to meet federal testing requirements.
Before Maine switched to the SAT five years ago, the federal government required extensive proof that the SAT was an appropriate test.
“The alignment with our standards was the most important thing to them,” said Jaci Holmes, the federal-state legislative liaison for the Maine Department of Education. “We didn’t have any problems with the accommodations [for disabled students or English learners] with the SAT. Our commissioner wouldn’t have moved in that direction if there were issues.”
The College Board announced last year that it was redesigning the SAT to better align the test with the college and career readiness standards states have adopted.
“These evidence-based, college- and career-readiness skills are fundamental to a variety of state academic standards across the country, including Connecticut’s standards,” the College Board’s Levin said in a statement.
Connecticut officials say they have yet to see the new test to assess whether it fits.
But Mark Waxenberg, the leader of the state’s largest teachers’ union and vocal opponent of the Smarter Balanced Assessments, said that shouldn’t stop the state from switching tests.
“I am willing to take the risk that the SAT is aligning itself with the Common Core sufficiently enough to have that be the annual test,” he said during the meeting of the governor’s workgroup.
If Connecticut moves forward with the change, it would join New Hampshire in requesting that the federal government sign off on allowing the SAT to replace the Smarter Balanced Assessment.
Heather Gage, the director of educational improvement for the New Hampshire Department of Education, said the federal government has encouraged the state to make the request and officials are hopeful it will be approved.
But Wentzell cautions Connecticut about relying on other states’ proposals.
“It is important to note that they have not yet been approved,” she said. Each request is handled individually, Wentzell said, and “…one state may be approved for something that another state is not for an identical request. It’s very contextual.”
The cost of switching
Testing students this year and last cost Connecticut $17 million, the education department reports. And switching tests will add cost, Wentzell said.
Just how much? The department is trying to figure that out now.
“There will be costs,” Wentzell told members of the governor’s task force. “It’s not a simple swap out to do this instead of that. Huge changes like this do cost. It will cost initially.”
State legislators said Thursday they believe the additional cost will be $2 million a year, and the education department would have to pick it up within their budget without the state providing additional funding.
Fleischmann pointed out that the agency is not expected to spend millions in the current year’s budget for assessments and in other line items.
However, the $3 million the department is expected to save this year for assessments is the result of additional funding the federal government provided the state to help with the rollout of the Smarter Balanced Assessments. That additional federal funding is not expected to be available next year.
The department is also expected to show savings in its allotments for the Education Cost Sharing Grant, the primary state grant that helps towns cover their education costs and charter schools; and for help to Commissioner Network Schools, the state’s lowest-performing schools.
The education department says the costs for the change to the SAT or ACT would include hiring more people to acquaint educators with the test by writing testing manuals and providing training. The state also would also need new to set up new software for tracking results.
The state is also in the middle of a three-year contract for its current testing regimen of Smarter Balanced Assessments.
“It’s possible we could end up paying for kids we don’t later assess,” said Wentzell.
In New Hampshire, education leaders are confident the cost of switching to the SAT will be minimal. “We estimate it will cost $72,000 next year,” said Gage. “It’s not an additional cost.”