March 28, 2005
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
After spending five
years and millions of dollars measuring schoolchildren on the
latest version of the Connecticut Mastery Test, what progress
have public schools made?
State officials say they can't be sure.
The reason? The federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The law - the centerpiece of President Bush's school reform
agenda - has altered test procedures and required testing thousands
of additional students with learning problems or English-speaking
difficulties, making it difficult to compare Connecticut's latest
scores with previous results, officials said.
"The [federal] rules keep changing about which youngsters
to test from year to year," state Education Commissioner
Betty J. Sternberg said. "It's really tough to say if you've
been having an effect because you're testing such different groups
Today, the state is scheduled to issue its annual report on
statewide results of the reading, mathematics and writing test.
The report is being released as Sternberg and other officials,
including state legislators, step up criticism of the No Child
Left Behind Act. Like several other states, Connecticut has clashed
with the federal government over interpretation of the 3-year-old
law, highlighting sharp differences of opinion on how to measure
academic progress, particularly on matters such as testing students
with disabilities and children who do not speak English.
In recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Education has signaled
a willingness to reconsider some of those questions, but has
said some issues, such as requiring an expansion of Connecticut's
testing program, are not negotiable.
The federal law, Sternberg
said, "is ill-fitting and doesn't
follow the values we have with regard to teaching and testing
Connecticut's 20-year-old mastery test of fourth-, sixth- and
eighth-graders is regarded as among the most rigorous in the
nation. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret
Spellings rejected Sternberg's request for a waiver on the federal
law's requirement to expand testing to also include grades 3,
5 and 7.
The state is gearing up to add the new tests next year - something
officials say will cost millions of dollars without much benefit.
"It is not going to provide us with any more information
than we already know," state Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden,
said as the state Senate passed a resolution last week urging
Congress and Bush to amend No Child Left Behind and allow waivers
for states such as Connecticut with strong records of academic
Gaffey, co-chairman of the
legislature's education committee, described No Child Left
Behind as "an historic intrusion
of the federal government onto states' administration of education."
Other states, including some that are strong Republican strongholds
for Bush, have challenged the law, asking for more flexibility.
Bush's home state of Texas, for example, has decided to follow
its own rules for counting special education students in test
score results rather than the federal government's stricter standard.
The Utah Senate's Republican caucus told Bush that Utah is prepared
to pass a bill allowing state education laws to take precedence
over portions of the federal law.
The challenges from some states "are the manifestation
of some of the frustration they're feeling when they're told
there will be flexibility [in the law], and then they run into
a brick wall," said David L. Shreve of the National Conference
of State Legislatures.
That organization issued a
report last month saying the law is too rigid and creates "too
many ways to fail."
The report said, "This
assertion of federal authority into an area historically reserved
to the states has had the effect of curtailing additional state
innovations and undermining many that had occurred during the
past three decades."
No Child Left Behind calls for a shake-up of schools that fail
to make sufficient gains. The law is aimed at closing the academic
achievement gap that finds some groups of students, such as racial
minorities and children from low-income families, lagging behind
Schools that receive federal Title I money to help educate poor
children and fail to make sufficient progress face increasingly
stiff sanctions under the law, eventually including a complete
reorganization of the school. A school can be cited even if a
single group - such as special education students or low-income
children - fails to make adequate progress. Many of the schools
that have been singled out so far are from urban areas that include
large numbers of low-income families, special education students
and non-English speaking children.
Across the country, many educators have complained that the
law is punitive and puts too much emphasis on testing.
"These kids are just being tested to death," said
Joanna Brother, a fifth-grade teacher at Edgerton School in New
London, where she teaches children who speak little or no English. "How
do you possibly measure a child's academic knowledge in a language
the child doesn't speak?"
In Connecticut, Sternberg said the state already has a strong
testing system to identify which students and which schools need
Among other things, Sternberg has asked U.S. officials to allow
selected special education students to take tests below their
grade level - a practice Connecticut schools have used for years.
Under No Child Left Behind, the state not only has tested thousands
more special education students, but is required to test them
at their grade level.
Sternberg has been backed by other state officials, including
Gov. M. Jodi Rell.
Rell, through a spokesman,
issued a statement saying, "It
seems like education officials in Washington want us to spend
more money on tests when Connecticut has been a leader in testing
since the mid-1980s. ... The best way to meet [students'] needs
is to put more resources in the classroom, not conduct more testing."
Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, sharply
disagreed with views expressed in a commentary in The Courant
last week by Spellings, the U.S. education secretary.
Taylor disputed Spellings'
claim that Connecticut's lowest-performing students in the
past were "hidden behind district-wide averages." Long
before No Child Left Behind, Taylor said, Connecticut issued
annual reports detailing the performance of various groups of
students such as low-income children and members of minority
Spellings also criticized
Sternberg's request for a waiver on testing students annually
in every grade, suggesting that "adults
in charge of [children's] education surely know better."
Taylor said there is no evidence
that annual tests in every grade will speed up the growth of
low-performing students, adding that, "Secretary Spellings'
use of the political campaign tactics of distortion and sarcasm
is not worthy of the issues or her office."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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