At last week’s Board of Education meeting on Thursday evening, Oct. 22, chairman Bruce Likly had both high praise and sharp criticism for district administrators over the sudden introduction of new standardized tests this past week.  “Shame on you for not telling people earlier…and nice job,” were his words to assistant superintendent Dr. Chuck Smith who handles testing as part of his responsibilities for overseeing curriculum for the school district.

On Tuesday, Oct. 20, Smith emailed a letter to parents announcing that the district was adopting a new computer-based assessment test called Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). The letter explained that testing would be conducted and completed by the end of October, acknowledging that the change in assessment practice “will have some effect on the time devoted to instruction” but that in the long run instruction would benefit from the data provided by the test.

larger than usual public audience MAP testing

Judging by social media and anecdote, as well as acknowledgement from school officials, many parents were caught of guard by the announcement and some were upset with the sudden plan to introduce and implement a brand new type of standardized assessment test. By Thursday, Smith sent out another letter apologizing for causing parents “consternation” and included FAQs on the MAP testing to try to speak to those concerns. A higher-than-usual number of parents were in the public seats at Thursday night’s meeting.

[Editor’s Note:  interestingly, over the weekend, news broke that the Obama administration had, according to The New York Times, “acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests, and urged schools to step back and make exams less onerous and more purposeful. Specifically, the administration called for a cap on assessment so that no child would spend more than 2 percent of classroom instruction time taking tests.”] 

Right at the start of the BoE meeting, even before Smith could give his extensive presentation about the new MAP tests, Likly addressed the administrators, admonishing them for the communication misstep. The BoE chair said that not only were parents caught off guard, but board members were as well.

“As amazing as our school district is, it gets overshadowed that we forget to talk to our key constituencies, and we end up with these self-inflicted wounds that overshadow the good work that we’re doing. I’ve learned over the last 24-36 hours a lot more about this testing process. The Bd. of Ed. just learned about it this week and from what I’ve learned, this is phenomenal for our school district,” Likly said, adding, “I’m disappointed in how we communicated it. The Board was caught off guard, that can’t happen again. But it was a great decision. We have lots of examples in our schools where we’ve made great decisions but haven’t communicated it as well as we could, and we need to be thinking about that as we go forward.”

He pointed to the successes the BoE has had in the past collaborating and communicating well as examples⎯the search for a new superintendent, the discussion over weighted grades, and the recent canine drug search⎯saying the community wasn’t caught off guard.

“We’re here to help, we’re going to be your biggest cheerleaders. But we need better insight into what all of the schools, principals and administrators are doing.”

Administrator Response⎯An Apology:  “We’re going to do better.”

Dr. Kevin Smith Superintendent listens to MAP testing explanation

Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith responded directly, both to Likly and to the public to address what he said were, “…questions and concern we’ve received over the last few days about the announcement about MAP testing.”

“First and foremost, I want to apologize to all of you⎯the board, to parents and teachers, because we put quite a burden on them by moving so quickly. Early on there was a very deliberate and thoughtful approach to assessment, and for some very valid reasons, we had an accelerated timeline. But there’s no excuse:  there’s a process in the way we do business which prizes communication and collaboration with the board, with parents and with teachers. And we violated that process in this decision, and I want to apologize. You expect better and we’re going to do better,” Smith said.

About the MAP Tests, Why Wilton Chose Them

chuck smith explains testing data
Dr. Chuck Smith explains MAP testing.

Chuck Smith gave an extended presentation about the tests to the board. Whether or not his detailed review of the MAP assessments and his communications to parents following the abrupt launch earlier in the week will assuage parent concerns remains to be seen.

The MAP tests were developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a not-for-profit organization that Smith says has done extensive work creating assessments and conducting educational research. According to Smith, NWEA assessments help provide “very highly accurate and reliable data to drive personalized instruction.”

The MAP tests are computer-based, adaptive assessments in the area of reading, math and language use. By adaptive, Smith said that tests will adapt based on how students perform:  if students answer correctly, subsequent questions get harder; if students answer incorrectly, the questions get easier.

He wanted to address one concern many parents had about the reliance on just one form of testing. “There’s no one measure that will paint an accurate picture of what a student knows and is able to do. We want both formal and informal assessment measures. Standardized tests are one form that provide certain types of information, specifically objective information to benchmark performance against other students and other districts.”

Smith said the move to new testing has been something the district has been reviewing for “the past couple of years” as administrators have reviewed existing assessments and eliminated many of the tests the districts had been conducting. The reason? Many of the old tests were not aligned to the new common core. But to choose a new test, the district had to select from a very short list given to them by the CT Dept. of Education. MAP was one of only three options provided by the state.

According to Smith, there were several reasons the district chose MAP:

  • Only option that allowed tracking from K-3 to upper grades, through 12th grade
  • “It has the best data,” Smith said, adding that other tests might mean less testing time, but the quality of data MAP provides is better.
    we can get reliable data on subset that will drive instruction…the resources they provide teachers to make sense of data
  • It’s adaptive across all grade levels
  • Results are available within 24 hours, unlike other assessments

Addressing the concern that some parents had regarding the time it takes to administer the test in class, Smith said that because it’s an adaptive test, “Some students may take longer to answer, some may take less time.” In general, the primary grades (at Miller-Driscoll) should be two 30-minute sessions per test (reading and math). In the upper grades, he said it should be 45-minutes per test.

Both Smith and Miller-Driscoll principal Cheryl Jensen-Gerner assured the board that they would not schedule the two testing periods back-to-back.

“The teachers have the option of determining what their class can manage. We have several people in there to monitor and to help. It depends on how they do in the practice, how they do with the technology. We did them today and we did well,” Jensen-Gerner said, noting that they saw kids did get tired and teachers were told to make sure to break up the testing time. “Nobody has to hurry at all. I’m telling them to make sure to break it up for kindergarten.”

Some parents were concerned that the test was too difficult for kindergarten and first grade students. Jensen-Gerner said that children do not have to be able to read to take the test.

“They don’t have to read. The test is entirely read to them. Kindergarten, first and second graders do not read the test, in either reading or math,” she said. She said that to take the test, students use a keyboard with a mouse attachment, which they either click or click-and-drag. “That’s one thing we do at the practice, to make sure they can do that. Then we go and help them if they’re really struggling to help them with the mouse. They do just great, we just have to make sure we break it up and don’t extend the time too long.”

Smith explained why they felt it was important to have a means to assess K-1 students.

“Our early learners come with wide range of readiness. It’s very important for teachers to have a quick and efficient way to gauge where they are. Historically we’ve spent time doing individual assessment with paper and pencil. This [MAP test] will provide teachers a very quick and efficient way to really see where the students are, and to build the classroom with other support. It is very developmentally appropriate. The wealth of information they get back will certainly make planning much more effective and efficient,” he said.

Smith said that some time-intensive testing has already been eliminated (the DRP, the writing assessment WrAP, the Gates-MacGinitie reading test, Boehm test) and that the district may be able to eliminate other additional assessments. Additional time is saved because those tests were sent out for scoring while the MAP test will be scored in-house and much more quickly–“almost immediately, and teachers can take action faster.”

What’s more, he said, is that as they become more familiar with the MAP testing protocol and interpreting, the district may be able to curtail or limit even more tests they currently do.

The total cost to the district to administer the MAP tests is $39,000, which Smith said can be contained by eliminating the other tests.

“So, costs are covered, we’re eliminating other tests, we’re reducing the total amount of time kids will be tested over the course of the year, and we’re going to get more data back for teachers to do more timely adjustments in their classrooms to not only teach but also to differentiate teaching for students throughout the class,” asked Likly.

“Absolutely,” Smith replied.

Another concern parents had about the new tests was over-testing, with the likelihood that the MAP would be administered three times a year. Smith said that in reality, the district is “not devoting any more time to standardized testing, we are in fact devoting less depending on grade level.”

As for why the district has opted for testing three times per year?

“It’s very important that teachers have ongoing feedback about where students stand with achieving the standards. They need frequent information to progress monitor,” Smith explained, adding that if the district sees a significant improvement in SBAC scores, they can reconsider.

Likly added that the timing serves the purpose of “creating a baseline at the beginning of the year, midyear to evaluate progress, and at the end measure outcomes to see if the school year was successful.”

Smith said that NWEA has done extensive studies that show the MAP tests allow a “fair degree of accuracy to predict how students will do on the SBAC. We can see who’s on track to meeting proficiency on SBAC scores and we can adjust instruction.”

The testing window for the district ends on Nov. 15. If a student misses the testing or opts out, the school “just simply won’t have data.”

Smith did say that parents can opt out their children and would need to contact the child’s principal, to which Likly responded, “These tests are to help your teacher create appropriate educational opportunities for your child. Opting out is tying your teacher’s hands behind their back in trying to help your child. Please don’t opt out.”

GMW posed the question to Smith about what children will do if they opt out–would they go to the library for quiet reading? Would alternative learning be provided?

“For students who are opted-out of the testing, the schools will be provide an alternative activity that keeps them productively engaged,” he answered.

Why the Rush?

Smith acknowledged that many parents felt like the decision to adopt MAP testing was made quickly, and that the community wasn’t notified early enough.

“We did make this decision very carefully and we tried to show our due diligence. We knew certain things needed to be replaced. We did an in-depth review and analysis, with input from instructional coaches and administrators. We ran up against a couple competing issues. I thought we had more time, but:

  • In Sept, we got the SBAC results that created a sense of urgency.
  • We also began more work with DMC [which is reviewing Wilton’s special education program], which gave us a strong recommendation that we needed to get into place universal screening as quickly as possible to start identifying students with SRBI [interventions].
  • Nov. 3 is our last professional learning day, and that’s the best opportunity to help teachers really understand how to use this test.

Smith told the board members, “In retrospect, I probably should have made you aware we were going down this road, so that you weren’t surprised and parents weren’t surprised. We were really trying to do what was best for the children, and getting caught up in the day-to-day work we neglected to think about the impact on parents and board members, so I do apologize. I understand that parents felt blindsided.”

He added that he’s tried to put in place a supportive structure, aided by the building administrators, to make sure that students have a positive experience.

Smith told the board members that most likely by the second round of MAP testing in the winter, administrators should have a good idea about whether the district’s low SBAC scores accurately reflect Wilton students’ abilities.

He said that 10 million students across the country are tested using the MAP tests, and other schools in our DRG (including New Canaan) use it. As well, superintendent Kevin Smith said MAP was used in Bethel when he ran that district.

“We get really good detailed data from it, and teachers can form intervention groups, and you can see growth for particular standards for particular kids,” he said.

Smith reviewed types of data that the tests generate, calling it “Really rich information.” He compared it to previous tests the district used which only documented where students were. But the information generated by MAP tests “will drive instruction.” He also said that using standardized tests helps correct for the fact that teacher-created tests “aren’t always aligned to standards so that’s why we need an objective test to make sure.”