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Standardized test scores often don't add up

Published September 16. 2013 4:00AM

Perhaps the only people who dread standardized tests more than students are teachers and school administrators, whose job performances are sometimes directly tied to scores and therefore go out of their way to make sure grades are interpreted in the best possible light.

In recent weeks districts throughout the region and the rest of Connecticut have been reporting results of the latest Connecticut Mastery Test and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, the two most widely used standardized measures of academic achievement. Superintendents have wisely but disingenuously arranged to have all scores filtered first through their offices instead of sent directly to students, parents and the news media, which allows them to highlight such prepared remarks as, "We're pleased by steady progress in our math scores" rather than, "Boy, we really took a dive in reading."

Some principals and teachers in other parts of the state have even been caught manipulating scores, improperly helping students or otherwise cheating to make it look as if their schools showed progress.

As for southeastern Connecticut, districts have been reporting a wide range of pluses and minuses, not surprisingly with wealthier suburban communities for the most part faring better than cities.

Critics frequently single out this troubling trend as a main reason for opposing standardized tests, and a nationwide "opt-out" movement against them has been growing.

The Associated Press reported last week that anti-standardized testing sentiment has been brewing for several years via word of mouth and social media, especially through Facebook. The "Long Island opt-out info" Facebook page has more than 9,200 members, many of them rallying at a Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. high school last month after a group of principals called this year's state tests - and their low scores - a "debacle."

Elsewhere, students and teachers at a Seattle high school boycotted a standardized test, leading the district superintendent to make it optional, while Oregon students organized a campaign persuading their peers to opt out of tests. Students in Providence dressed like zombies and marched in front of the State House to protest a requirement that students must achieve a minimum score on a state test to graduate.

While many students have been forced to take standardized tests since the mid-1800s, their numbers soared after 2002 when the No Child Left Behind Act required annual testing in all 50 states. Districts that didn't have at least 95 percent of students participate in standardized testing risked losing federal funding.

Today, a number of districts have been granted waivers from this requirement and administrators are focusing instead on the Common Core Curriculum and new standardized tests that will be implemented in the 2014-15 school year.

While this newspaper sympathizes with critics who say such tests are weighted unfairly against poorer school districts, we agree with proponents who argue that standardized tests can be an objective measure of student achievement, and that they make teachers and schools accountable to students, parents and taxpayers.

The challenge has been to design a one-size-fits-all test for students who come in all shapes and sizes, academically and sociologically speaking.

Perhaps the best test of student achievement is how many go on to earn college degrees and then are able to find meaningful employment.

Using this measure the United States education system would barely get a passing grade. But judged on a curve, compared to the rest of the world where unemployment among the young is even higher, maybe the U.S. score would go up to a C.

Not everybody can make the honor roll, but we can - and must - do better for our young people.

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