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OP-ED | An Open Letter to Connecticut Students

by | May 31, 2013 8:15am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Education, Opinion

Dear Connecticut students,

Last Friday, during a town hall meeting at the Classical Magnet School in Hartford with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, and assorted other luminaries of the Connecticut political firmament, one of you — Justin Vega — raised a great point with Secretary Duncan.

According to a CT Mirror report, Vega told Duncan that he felt “as if all the time and money spent on standardized testing has compromised the quality of his education.”

The responses given by both Governor Malloy and Secretary Duncan provided us all with a teachable moment in politics, critical thinking, research, statistics, and media literacy.

Malloy warned Vega that Hartford schools could potentially have a 40 percent dropout rate and said:  “We have to do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen. We need a multifaceted approach which doesn’t overemphasize [testing],” the CT Mirror reported.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from parenting my own kids is that they learn as much from what I do as from what I say. They don’t hesitate to point out when there is a discrepancy between my words and my actions. I ask them to do it politely. It’s important they respect my authority, but in order to maintain a healthy relationship, it’s equally as important that they question it, particularly if my words and actions don’t ring true. The same is true of democracy.

So ask yourselves — is this the same Governor Malloy who said, “I’ll settle for teaching to the test” if it means raising test scores? Note that he didn’t say he would strive for you to have a meaningful learning experience and develop critical thinking skills. He made it all about your test scores.

Despite Malloy’s assertion that we need a “multifaceted approach which doesn’t over-emphasize” testing, his policies do the opposite. Students in Hartford took more standardized tests this year, like the NWEA MAP and the Common Core alignment field test. What’s more, the stakes of those test results are even higher as a result of the governor’s education reform bill, which ties your teachers’ tenure and pay to your test results. It looks like Malloy is going to get what he wants. You’re going to be taught to the tests instead of getting the kind of education I was fortunate enough to receive, one that encouraged me to think critically, ask questions, read for the love of reading, and to want to be a lifelong learner.

Not to be outshone by Governor Malloy, Secretary Duncan agreed there should be balance and went on to claim that when he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools, “he cut the amount of standardized testing by 50 percent,” the CT Mirror reported.

Well I am no longer a teen, but my antennae still buzz when there’s a discrepancy between words and actions. And the policies that Duncan has presided over as U.S. Secretary of Education, like Reach to the Top and the Common Core Curriculum, place increased emphasis on standardized testing, and with higher stakes.

So I started doing some research.

It turns out that Duncan, who led the Chicago schools from 2001 through 2008, was taking credit for eliminating the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The Iowa test was used by his predecessor in Chicago, Paul Vallas (does that name ring a bell?), to retain students in 3rd, 6th and 8th grade. The Iowa test was 135 minutes of annual standardized testing, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research and other published descriptions of the Iowa test battery.

Duncan didn’t nix the Iowa test because of any great belief in over-testing, as he may have led you to believe, but rather he did it because Chicago students were moving to another test — the ISAT, or Illinois Standards Achievement Test — to conform with the provisions of No Child Left Behind.

What he neglected to mention was that “the ISAT takes longer to complete than the Iowa test, with more than twice as much time in reading, and half again as much time in mathematics,” according to the nonpartisan Consortium on Chicago School Research report. The consortium puts the ISATs at 240 minutes annually.

Maybe Duncan was confused and comparing the Iowa Tests to another standardized test — the
Stanford Learning First Formative Classroom Assessment System — that he also implemented in Chicago at the same time he cut the Iowa Tests. The Stanford tests, administered three times a year in October, January and May, total 120 minutes for the year. That’s marginally shorter than the Iowa — by all of 15 minutes.

Giving up the Iowa tests (-135) for the ISATs (+240) and Stanford (+120) leaves us with a net gain of 225 minutes of standardized testing per year for a total of 360 minutes. It takes some creative math to suggest that a net gain of 225 minutes per year is a 50 percent reduction.

I did try to check with Duncan about this discrepancy, but I didn’t receive any response.

Consider this also, my friends: Duncan is pushing education reform based on the model he and his predecessor, Vallas, implemented in Chicago. “I am eager to apply some of the lessons we have learned here in Chicago, we have worked with a sense of urgency, because we can’t wait,” he said at the press conference announcing his appointment by President Barack Obama, held in front of one of his great “success” stories, Dodge Renaissance Academy. Yet, this month Chicago Public Schools announced Dodge Renaissance would be closed and reopened at another location, disrupting families and communities — again.

This move came despite the research published in a 2009 report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which found “few effects, either positive or negative, of school closings on the achievement of displaced students.” The consortium attributed this to the fact that students were being shuffled from one low-achieving school to another. “Only 6 percent of displaced students enrolled in academically strong schools, while 42 percent of displaced students continued to attend schools with very low levels of academic achievement,” the consortium wrote. That’s a lot of community upheaval for very little gain.

And all those expensive tests they’re making you take? Have they actually proved effective? Not according to a study by the National Research Council, reported in the Huffington Post.

“None of the studies that we looked at found large effects on learning, anything approaching the rhetoric of being at the top of the international scale,” said committee member Kevin Lang, who also chairs the Economics Department at Boston University. The most successful NCLB programs the committee studied moved student performance by just eight hundredths of the standard deviation.

“These policies are treating humans like rats in a maze,” explained Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University. “We keep thinking about how to reorganize the cheese to get the rats to do what we want. People do so much more than that.”

Indeed. That’s how I feel about you. That’s how your teachers feel about you. We don’t view you as data sets. And unlike the consultants and the testing companies, we’re not in this to make a profit from your time in school, either.

And therein lies perhaps the most important lesson you’ll take away from this experience — more important than speaking to the governor of Connecticut or the U.S. Secretary of Education, even though they are Really Important Men.

Really Important Men — especially politicians — don’t always tell you the truth. Make sure you pay attention when your math teacher discusses statistics, so that you can learn how numbers can be manipulated and cherry-picked for political purposes.

Don’t let them test away your critical thinking skills. Ask questions and do your own research. Find primary sources. Justin Vega, you are spot on. Overuse of standardized testing IS compromising the quality of your education, and that makes me furious. Keep asking questions and speaking out. And make sure your parents consider these factors when they vote — as do you, when you get the ballot.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(19) Archived Comments

posted by: Linda12 | May 31, 2013  6:46pm

Maybe everyone can come to their senses now and finally realize this is a massive shell game with a revolving door of edupreneurs and politicians masquerading as “reformers” reforming each others’ reforms while robbing the taxpayers.  They lie when they spew: it’s all for the children and it’s the civil right$  I$$ue of our time.

I thought Vallas reformed Chicago and then Arne reformed Chicago and now Rahm is reforming Chicago closing three schools Arne opened. Why didn’t Arne’s reforms work?  Why did Vallas’s reforms work?

Who bears the brunt of their experiments and gets shuffled around, uprooted, discarded,  and moved around like chess pieces.  Other people’s children, that’s who…not their children. They attend elite private schools or upper middle class public schools where testing is not the holy grail of measurement, where they have: stability, libraries, the arts, science labs, counselors, field trips, small class sizes, tutors, etc.

Interesting how none of the self proclaimed saviors (Kopp, Gates, Emanuel, Obama, Rhee, Bloomberg, Tisch, etc) send their kids to charter chains: KIPP, Achievement First. Their children and grandchildren will not be forced fed the corporate core national standards, the smarter balanced bubble testing, or the high stakes evaluation systems used to close schools.

This isn’t about children, teaching, learning and improving our schools. 

This is about politicians and eduvultures making a name for themselves. It is a ruse and the kids they profess to care about are nothing more than pawns and dollar signs. Race to the top is a stimulus plan whose purpose is to destroy the public schools in our neediest, poorest communities.

posted by: Linda12 | June 1, 2013  6:36am


I wish an editing feature was an option….why didn’t Vallas’s reforms work?

Chicago has been closing schools, or abandoning schools, and calling it reform for twenty years. Duncan is the privatizer in chief and his orders come from Gates and Broad.

posted by: dano860 | June 1, 2013  7:32am

I believe that the age old axiom applies here. “Follow the money.” Specifically the paychecks of the players named here.
Their first concern appears to be create a legacy, of course it’s driven by cash.
Maybe some of the 50% savings in time realized by increasing the testing time by 225 minutes can be re-directed toward reducing gang, drug and firearm violence in Chicago. (Eight shot in one day, reported on 5/31/13)
Chicago should be the LAST city to hold up as a shining example of anything!

posted by: Aldon_Hynes | June 1, 2013  8:30am


For another view from a recent student, please view this video of my daughter reading an excerpt from new her new book, Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | June 2, 2013  5:28pm


Malloy is well aware the US is on its way to a national diploma system based on computer based instruction. And MOOCs and standardized test. Along with AP style exams kids in China and India will be graduating High School with a US Community College Degree by the end of the decade. Forget the GED. US online tutors will flourish getting these students language prepared for UConn and State Universities and entering as transfers with 60 Credits To get on the 3 year Masters track.

a malfeasance lawsuit is in order. Not for Dan Malloy and his unsavory henchmen.

Vouchers. Let the parents decide how to deal with this competitive threat using private, public, parochial, and home learning.

posted by: brutus2011 | June 2, 2013  7:14pm


In my experience as a teacher, I have found that those who stand the most to lose, will lie with impunity to protect themselves regardless of the harm to those around them.

It is endemic to education management. This is why I advocate for teacher-led schools.

It may be the only solution to this crisis of ethics and run-away spending.

posted by: GuilfordResident | June 3, 2013  12:09pm

Pretty much, no one knows what they are doing.

We all ended up learning when we were kids ... and, along the way, some of us overachieved and some of us underachieved. At some point, you figure out to be successful in your life at that point in time, you have to put extra effort in (i must have missed the rule about not ending a sentence w/ a preposition). Or, you give up. Or you do just enough to get by. I don’t think I learned to be a rat in a test maze nor a critical thinker from any educator or school. You have to be self-motivated (even as a 1st grader) to achieve the results you want to achieve.

The CGA continues to look at residents as revenue sources and as sheep to be fleeced.

We enable them.

posted by: justsayin | June 3, 2013  1:52pm

Education has forgotten who its “customers” are. They either prepare kids for college or work, listen to them and the path is clear.

posted by: Speak up | June 3, 2013  2:14pm

States are rejecting the national standards. Return the dash to the cash money, otherwise known as the race to nowhere or the race to the trough. Close the Gates USDOE and forget the oligarchs and the feds. This is a gimmick to control the populace. It is only moot if we roll over. Let ABC give up. Many will not.

posted by: saramerica | June 3, 2013  5:05pm


So let me get this straight, ABC…what you’re saying, essentially, is teaching to the test isn’t good for your kids, but it’s fine other people’s kids. “Urban kids”.

WOW. Just…WOW. You should hear Walter Dean Myers speak sometime.
As National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, his platform was READING IS NOT AN OPTION. I had the honor of meeting him and briefly discussing these issues with him at the Hudson Children’s Book festival and building literacy ISN’T about teaching to the test. Or about Accelerated Reader or any of the programs that are oh so profitable for edu-vultures but suck the joy out of reading.

posted by: brutus2011 | June 3, 2013  5:45pm


I agree. It’s time to take local control and pay for our own choices in our own communities for our own children.

And, if our kids suffer then it is up to us adults to figure out what to do to change what is wrong.

After all, they are our kids.

posted by: Linda12 | June 3, 2013  6:48pm


It is clear ABC is not an educator, but possibly a supporter of the new frontier, the “education business”. It must be A better CT or ConnCan or ConnAd or AF or Pryor/Toll or a minion. 

Experimenting on OPC is their very lucrative hobby.  Blaming all failures of our society on one profession is their stale mantra. You can’t learn or understand something if your livelihood depends on not understanding it.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | June 3, 2013  9:12pm


Vouchers allow the freedom for different models to co-exist including parental choice and teacher led.

posted by: saramerica | June 4, 2013  6:55am


Goatboy - you know how Biden said (rightfully) that every Guiliani answer had “a noun, a verb and 9/11?” Well, each comment you leave on every single one of my pieces consists of “Verbiage + Vouchers”, which is why I’ve started ignoring them. But since you’ve doubled down, here’s a little research on the vouchers you keep bleating on about. “Since 2000, more evidence has accumulated about the impact of vouchers on student test scores, particularly from longer-term studies of the publicly funded voucher programs in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and D.C. As discussed more in the synthesis of findings below, these
studies have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private schools with vouchers.” July 2011 Center for Education Policy Even conservatives have realized that they don’t actually improve scores, so they changed the rhetoric from improving performance to “choice”:  “First off, 20 years in, it’s hard to argue that the nation’s biggest and most established voucher experiment has ‘worked’ if the measure is whether vouchers lead to higher reading and math scores. Happily, that’s never been my preferred metric for structural reforms—both because I think it’s the wrong way to study them . . . but, more importantly, because choice-based reform shouldn’t be understood as that kind of intervention. Rather, choice-based reform should be embraced as an opportunity for educators to create more focused and effective schools and for reformers to solve
problems in smarter ways.
—Rick Hess, American Enterprise Institute, 2010”

Source: http://usher_voucher_072711.pdf

And so, we get more kids in Louisiana learning creationism instead of science on the taxpayer’s dime. Well isn’t that GRAND. Thanks, Conservatives, for preparing a generation of kids for the 15th Century instead of the 21st.

posted by: GuilfordResident | June 4, 2013  7:15am

Teachers and schools don’t matter. The individual student decides whether or not they will be a good student and perform. Schools and teachers aren’t extraordinary. It is the individual being educated that makes the difference in their own education.

posted by: Greg | June 4, 2013  9:43am

I am old indeed, but even 15-20 years ago we had the CAT and CMT in alternating years (something like that) of elementary through middle school and then my class was the first group of guinea pigs for the CAPT test and some other waste of time test that i can’t remember offhand. Nevermind the SAT and AP tests in our latter years that actually had a justifiable purpose.

Out of an entire class of 130 students at the time, only TWO of us passed the CAPT, and neither of us were the smartest kids in the place by any means.  TWO. TWO kids passed. Thankfully there was no real consequence if we didn’t pass, but how utterly bizarre to throw a test at high school students that’s designed to fail.  Of course, the smart kids that didn’t pass on the first try went on to be doctors, lawyers, a Forbes reporter, one a nuclear engineer…but even they couldn’t pass this sucker the first time out. Maybe pointing out this was a ghetto high school in Waterbury is a convenient excuse…

Even 20 years ago the hooting began over “teaching to the test” and i can only imagine the nonsense kids go through these days.  Separately (perhaps related?), a rash of new college grads that we interviewed have utterly remedial writing and problem solving skills and quite frankly i’m not sure how they graduated high school, nevermind a bachelors in business with a decent GPA.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | June 4, 2013  10:23am


Voucher programs in Milwaukee were shown to have positive outcomes for College Placement, retention, and when factoring in the co-hort was often behind when entering.

Even when considered a wash the price is indexed at 55% of the instructional costs for similar co-horts in the District. This saved money can then be used by the District for program expansion in other area like pre-school, gifted and talented, arts, and technology.

Vouchers. Plain and simple. Public, parochial, private, and home schooling.

There’s nothing wrong with creationism or evolution when taught correctly.

posted by: ASTANVET | June 4, 2013  10:47am

saraamerica - I am wondering why the test scores of urban schools matter to someone living in the rural part of the state?  Why should we, rural towns, pay through educational cost share dollars to support the test score debacle in Bridgeport or Hartford?  Schools are paid for by taxes from a town… if your town sucks at education move to a different town, or ... just maybe you can get involved in your school to fix the problems.  If there are disruptive students, make separate classrooms for the kids who want to learn and the ones who don’t.  But please - enough of the central planning.  The answer isn’t money - it’s personal investment.  Investment in the school, investment in the children and investment in the community.  These tests do not educate kids - they make them good at taking that one test!  As Ms. Littman points out, a dynamic thinker is far more valuable than a testing drone.  Put that power back into the hands of the communities, back to the teachers and local boards of education.

posted by: gerardw | June 5, 2013  6:35am

The truth of the matter is that the important “fortunate” comes from the parents a child has: ‘Research consistently shows that what parents do with their children at home is far more important to their achievement than their social class or level of education.” http://bgfl.org/bgfl/custom/files_uploaded/uploaded_resources/18617/Desforges.pdf

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