Recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act [ESSA], which becomes law on Aug. 1, 2016, provides the State Department of Education with both the opportunity and flexibility to determine its own educational direction moving forward.  ESSA represents a long-overdue response to what many congressional leaders finally admitted was a failed No Child Left Behind law.  As a result, the new federal legislation sought to give decision-making authority back to the states.

With that in mind, the Connecticut legislature-commissioned Mastery Examination Task Force has a unique opportunity to design and determine a Connecticut Assessment System that can meet the needs of our students, satisfy their parents, and inform student learning for teachers while – at the same time – fulfilling the Department’s obligations under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

ESSA calls for all students in our state and across the nation to be assessed on “challenging academic standards” in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in the development of their reading and math skills annually and science skills periodically.  The letter of the law can be met by administering 17 tests overall: seven in reading, seven in math, and three in science.

ESSA also recognized that testing expectations under NCLB had gotten out of control and were taking too much valuable time away from student instruction, hence the new law called for significant decreases in the amount of time devoted to test preparation and testing itself.

In May 2015, the Education Committee of the Connecticut Legislature established the above-mentioned Mastery Examination Task Force which, for eight months, surveyed stakeholders which brought to light many of the problems associated with the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced Assessment that had had a rocky roll-out with hundreds of students and parents opting their children out of the test.

There were so many refusals that schools were put into the position of failing to meet the 95 percent test participation rate mandate that was required to access federal funding.  Rather than devise ways to meet a required 95 percent threshold on a fairer, more balanced, measure of student performance, the Department of Education expended hours of staff time on misguided education initiatives when it could have sought better ways to protect student learning and enhance teacher involvement in the very field it is tasked with improving.

Instead of coercing, threatening, and bullying concerned parents, students, and local district administrators, the Department of Education should seek common ground and determine a mastery examination protocol that can satisfy all stakeholders through this Mastery Examination Task Force.

It is clear that more “authentic” measures of student learning take place in the classroom where students engage in a broad range of academic activities that guide their growth and development.  Measures that truly reflect what students are learning are not limited to test scores in reading, math, and science.

A true measure of student progress needs to incorporate what students are actually expending mental energy on and what their teachers are guiding them to achieve.  ESSA speaks directly to the use of alternative assessments, such as portfolios of student work, long-term projects, and other extended performance measures as well as school climate surveys, graduation rates, high-end course offerings, and attendance information.

The Mastery Examination Task Force, which meets on Thursday (March 24) for the first time since submitting its Interim Report to the Education Committee, needs to commit itself to determining a meaningful assessment system that will actually inform student instruction.

It will come down to the resolve of the Department of Education and its stakeholder allies in choosing between continued allegiance to an “education reform” agenda that has demonstrated 15 or more years of failed policies or in exploring new, more “authentic” assessment practices that truly measure student growth and progress.

As it stands now, it is quite apparent that – under current Department of Education  leadership – there is little intention for promoting sound, innovative, cost-saving changes in the way student progress is evaluated or in how public education is conducted in our state.

John Bestor is a recently retired school psychologist who worked for 41 years in a Connecticut public school system.

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