Over the past three years, Hartford public school officials claimed that offering more school choices for parents and students, while holding educators accountable for results, improved standardized test scores. That story is incomplete. The next superintendent must account for this tall tale of school reform and separate fact from fiction.
Fortunately, the next superintendent can end the policy of using standardized test scores as a single measurement for evaluating schools. Along with the school board, the superintendent can transform our district into one that is more inclusive of parents' and educators' opinions.
Test score improvements are not what they seem. In 2009, Connecticut created an alternative test for students with special needs, the Modified Assessment System, called the MAS. For eligible students with an Individualized Education Plan, the state offered the MAS in reading and mathematics in place of the Connecticut Mastery and Connecticut Academic Performance tests. The creation of a modified assessment recognizes that students with special needs learn in different ways.
Districts had to show that such students were receiving modified instruction and — most important — that they would not achieve satisfactory proficiency on the regular tests in math, reading or both because of their special needs. When the state reported test scores, it separated the scores of students taking the MAS from those taking standard tests.
The problem lies in comparing test score growth in 2009 and 2010 with scores in years before the MAS was approved.
The MAS is a legal way to remove low-scoring, special needs students from high-stakes testing. Hartford has a high percentage of special needs students, 12 percent of all students. A large number took modified MAS tests — 815 in math and 880 in reading. So, about one in 12 tested students did not count in the calculation of CMT and CAPT success rates.
Hartford did not exclude a random 8 percent of its test takers, it excluded students who it predicted would fail the regular tests. In some schools, at some grade levels, proficiency rates on the standardized tests would have declined in math, reading or both had these students been included.
To be sure, teachers', parents' and students' hard work resulted in modest gains. But the largest factor in test score increases over the past two years was excluding special needs students from the regular tests.
Hartford's school leaders offered the improved test scores as validation of their reforms. Also, the state Department of Education acknowledged that students who took the MAS did not count in its calculations for proficiency rates. The apparently increased rates became a green light to continue flawed policies — teachers, students and parents were punished or rewarded based on test scores.
If scores lagged, schools were closed, students were dispersed, parents were ignored and educators were fired. If test scores improved, the schools remained open. School and central office employees earned bonuses if test scores increased. In 2010, this "merit" pay amounted to $2.77 million dollars.
Most disturbingly, the test score inflation led the public to believe that the current reforms improved the quality of education. Proponents of school choice, charter schools and test-based accountability schemes point to Hartford as a national model for change. On the contrary, Hartford's model, based on the single-measure of student test scores, is an example of a poor reform policy. It is a model pioneered in the 1990s in Houston and now widely recognized as a fraud — what Walter Haney, a researcher of evaluation systems, called an "illusion arising from exclusion."
The next superintendent must include teachers and parents in determining how our public schools will account for student growth using multiple measures. The policy should be to treat schools and students in different ways; one size shouldn't fit all. Our policy should reflect the value we place on student diversity and democratic practice. Schools should not close based solely on test scores.
Robert Cotto Jr. is an elected (Working Families Party) member of Hartford's board of education. He teaches at the Metropolitan Learning Center. His views are his own.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at