Courtesy New Haven Register, Josiah H. Brown

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New Haven Register

FORUM: “Tests not just measure of students, teachers”

Josiah Brown

Published: April 20, 2005


The 2004 Connecticut Mastery Test scores are out for grades 4, 6, and 8. The Connecticut Academic Performance Test is under way for 10th graders, weeks after a national education summit called for high school reform. While "teaching to the test" is a hazard when tests obscure actual learning, they are one measure of students' preparation. Both the problems that tests reveal, and the promise of solutions, are evident in New Haven . Too many high schoolers drop out, 15 to 30 percent nationally. Many who do graduate are insufficiently prepared for college and work. We debate how much responsibility for teens' academic shortcomings rests with high schools versus with students' previous teachers, neighborhoods, families, peers or themselves. Learning is cumulative, with all those influences at play.

Yet research echoes intuition that good teaching matters. Through the "value-added assessment" technique, we know that students benefiting from several years of effective teaching surpass youngsters with less-skilled teachers.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress and Mastery Tests indicate that most Connecticut elementary and middle school students attain proficiency. Teachers deserve credit. Still, thousands of students' skills are deficient, and stiffer goals elude many more. Teens' academic limitations are further exposed as they encounter high school.

In 2004, only in writing did more than half, 54 percent, of Connecticut 10th graders reach the CAPT's demanding goal range. In math, science, and reading, between 46 and 48 percent achieved that range. The proportion reaching the CMT's ambitious goals is 10 to 15 percentage points greater.

Considerably smaller percentages of students attained the goals among low-income districts. The relationship between affluence and achievement is real.

Overall Connecticut students do well - reflecting progress since the 1986 Education Enhancement Act and our state's wealth. Average SAT scores are relatively high given the number of students taking the exam. This state's and city's investments in pre-kindergarten are yielding dividends; policy-makers are right to pursue the over 20 percent of kids who still don't attend pre-kindergarten in cities like New Haven .

Our state, like others, has sought exemptions from increasing federal No Child Left Behind Act testing requirements. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is suing over the costs, while the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding seeks more dollars statewide.

Here's how the annual Quality Counts study by Education Week rates Connecticut : one "A" for efforts to improve teacher quality; two "B"s for resources equity and school climate; and a "C" for standards and accountability. Achievement gaps are the glaring issue here, as in other states.

Correlating student performance and teacher performance isn't simple. Larger districts face higher hurdles, including scale, family mobility and student needs. Seven in 10 New Haven students qualify for a free/reduced price lunch.

Connecticut's teacher of the year, Burt Saxon of New Haven's Hillhouse High School , can testify that within a district certain schools and classrooms thrive while others struggle.

Three new small high schools have opened here to provide more intimate settings. Greater academic rigor is planned. As educators recognize, this will require steady effort across grades and time. The district is pursuing five strategies, beginning with implementation of a pre-K-12 standards-based curriculum.

Among the other strategies are to create professional learning communities and to boost constituency engagement. New Haven is working to develop and keep its best educators and to attract additional talent; an event for prospective teachers is scheduled for April 28. We are also fostering more environments where these colleagues can share information, continually reflect and support one another.

Every spring and summer, the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute cultivates such learning communities in seminars that Yale faculty members lead. The teachers who participate are familiar with this collaborative approach, including work across different schools, disciplines, and grade levels.

The CMT and CAPT gauge not only individual students and teachers but also the climates in which they operate. With time, resources, and coherent focus, student test scores should respond.


Josiah H. Brown is associate director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, a partnership between Yale University and the New Haven public schools. E-mail:

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