James Larson

Despite increasing scores, New Haven’s performance on state exams has left administrators frustrated and some questioning the value of “high-stakes testing.”

Students in New Haven Public Schools improved on their state exams in math and English language arts in a variety of grade levels over the past year, but their scores still lag behind Connecticut averages. The presentation of these scores from the Office of the Superintendent, which took place at an Oct. 28 Board of Education meeting, has sparked a discussion about the value of state exams and whether the exams properly evaluate students’ abilities.

Sarah Miller ’03, who volunteers with the New Haven Public Schools Advocates and co-chair of Mayor-elect Justin Elicker’s transition team, emphasized her hope that “high stakes testing” would be decentered in the education process.

“All the research shows that … it is not in the best interest of kids to design curriculum around these tests — to make them so important,” Miller told the News in an interview. “High stakes testing in general is a way for corporations to make money; it is not a tool for educating children.”

New Haven Public Schools administrator Michele Sherban presented this year’s NHPS exam results at the Oct. 28 Board of Education meeting. According to the data, New Haven Public Schools students scored on average 77 points lower in math and 70 points lower in English language arts on the SAT exams this past year as compared to the state average.

The Smarter Balanced assessment is administered annually to students in grades three through eight and high school, according to its website. The assessment measures students’ levels of proficiency in both English language arts and math and places students between levels one and four — level four being the highest level of proficiency — based on their test scores.

Despite steady improvements in the past year, the percentage of New Haven students achieving a level three or level four score in math and English language arts still lags behind the state average.

According to 2018–19 results from the Smarter Balanced exam, as reported by the Hartford Courant, 34.4 percent of Elm City students reached levels three or four in English language arts and 22.5 percent in math — as compared to 55.7 percent and 48 percent in the two categories, respectively, across the state.

Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, a member of the Board of Education, voiced her concerns regarding the New Haven exam results at the Oct. 28 meeting.

“I know we made gains, but I’m not comfortable with that,” Jackson-McArthur said. “And I’m very disturbed that the state is at 55[.7 percent] and we are at 34[.4 percent].”

Sherban noted that New Haven students have improved their scores at a higher rate than the Connecticut average over the last four years. While the proportion of Connecticut students proficient in English language arts has improved by 0.1 percent since 2015–16, the New Haven average has improved by 2.3 percent over the same time period.

Sherban added that the percentage of students proficient in math has increased by 1.7 points since the 2016–17 school year.

Board of Education President Darnell Goldson declined to comment for this article.

However, after the results from the 2017–18 exams were published last year, he told the News in an interview that he believed that test scores did not “[represent] our children’s greatness.”

“It’s disheartening when these kids get a certain score on these tests,” Goldson said. “One snapshot, one day of their life could have been a bad day — they could have been sick — and I don’t think it represents who our students are. But it represents who the state thinks they are, so we have to play the game until we find a better game.”

According to a January Connecticut State Department of Education report, the department requires that each school and school district exceed or expect to exceed a 95-percent participation rate in state exams.

For the 2014–15 school year, the Connecticut State Department of Education set a variety of penalties for schools that did not garner a 95-percent participation rate in state exams. Schools and districts that fell below 90-percent state exam participation were at risk of losing state funding unless they garnered a 90-percent participation rate the following year.

Miller said that New Haven Public Schools should not unilaterally abandon state exams. Rather, if New Haven were to abandon state exams, the matter should be negotiated with the Department of Education in a way that would not risk state funding.

“Losing funding isn’t good for kids either,” Miller said.

Approximately 99 percent of CT students participated in the Smarter Balanced assessment.

Nick Tabio | nick.tabio@yale.edu