For a town accustomed to headlines proclaiming that our students had “once again” excelled in standardized testing, last week’s news that the Wilton Public Schools posted a sub-par performance on the new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests came as a shock. In fact, in my eight-plus years on the Board of Education, I can’t remember many topics that have aroused this much passion.
The simple truth is that while we knew our SBAC scores would be lower than the scores our students usually earn on the CMT and CAPT tests, we were all surprised by our performance.
SBAC tests were administered beginning at the end of March to students in Grades 3-8 and in Grade 11. Scores for math revealed that 47% to 65% of students demonstrated they either “met” or “excelled” at comprehending curriculum concepts. Our English score found that 66% to 87% had achieved proficiency. While our students outperformed the Connecticut state average, we finished last among our District Reference Group (DRG) peers, which includes Darien, New Canaan and Ridgefield among other high-performing districts.
I know there is a lot of concern in the community, so I’d like to shed some light on the issue with regard to explaining our students’ performance, and as important, to discuss steps the district is taking to correct what is a clear signal that our curriculum is not effectively aligned with the new SBAC testing protocols which are tied to the Common Core.
First, please understand that this is not a reflection on the learning that goes on in the Wilton Schools, or the intelligence and high achievements of our students. The Wilton Public Schools remains a top-achieving district. In fact, at our board meeting last Thursday night, after Assistant Superintendent Chuck Smith finished providing an overview of our poor SBAC scores, he went on to share our students’ above average scores on the CMT, SAT and ACT tests.
But what happened with the SBAC?
While I’m not offering excuses, there were several factors that most certainly affected our students’ performance:
Wilton was slow to transition to Common Core. The SBAC test is closely aligned with Common Core curriculum standards now in place for math and English Language Arts (ELA). The new standards were adopted by Connecticut in July 2010, but the Wilton schools were slow in adapting to the new standards. Our students continued to receive superior instruction, but our learning practices were not aligned with the Common Core’s strong emphasis on “critical thinking” and “problem solving.”
We did begin implementing the Singapore Math program in 2012 which supports the Common Core, and we are confident that once fully implemented, this approach to math instruction will well-position our students to be top performers on future SBAC assessments.
Similarly, with language arts instruction. Wilton now has in place a highly effective reading/writing workshop model that supports concepts laid out in the Common Core.  But, this rigorous approach to teaching was only implemented in the past few years, while several of our DRG counterparts began the transition as early as 2010 meaning that their students had a full two to three years of instruction before taking the SBAC exam.
Wilton does not “teach to the test.” A point of pride within the Wilton community has always been our policy of not taking time away from classroom instruction to prepare for standardized tests. While this policy has served us well, it may be time to reconsider this practice. Dr. Chuck Smith expressed his opinion that the policy may in fact, be doing a disservice to our students. We learned this week that at least one of our neighboring districts has implemented an “SBAC English” component into its ELA curriculum, in which students wholly focus on SBAC test questions and core concepts. While I think that approach may go too far, it’s clear we need to find an appropriate balance.
Wilton students did not “practice” the SBAC. We have become aware that other districts had their students take practice SBAC tests in preparation for the actual exam.  Wilton did not do this, which may be another explanation for our sub-par performance.  This test was entirely administered via computer — no No. 2 pencils and bubbles to fill in. While our students are fully capable of a computer-based exam, they had very limited experience with online testing and the fact they had not seen the test format may have affected performance, especially for our younger students.
So, where do we go from here?
We talked about this quite a bit during Thursday’s meeting. Cider Mill Principal Jennifer Mitchell, who spent years in the field of assessment analysis warns against any “dramatic overcorrections.” We have the fundamentals in place to ensure that our students will become SBAC masters, but it will take a few years until we see the results to which our community is accustomed. Similarly, Assistant Superintendent Smith stresses the need to keep our eye firmly focused on maintaining a rigorous curriculum in which students are challenged in every lesson and every task. I think in the short term you will notice a renewed enthusiasm among our teachers to reinforce the concepts of rigor, critical thinking and problem solving.
Another issue of concern is that beginning in Spring 2016, the SAT will be aligned with the Common Core. I think it’s reasonable to anticipate a drop in scores for Wilton students. The board has asked the administration to develop a plan for offering Common Core-aligned training for our students as they prepare for these college entrance exams.
Wilton’s performance on the SBAC was certainly a wake-up call to the entire school community. I wanted to share some thoughts with regard to why our students’ scores were so low, and to assure you that we are taking this very seriously. I will continue this conversation with you as we implement steps to return our students to the high levels of performance to which we are all accustomed.