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CEA Presses PEAC for Answer: What Is the Purpose of the Mastery Test?


At today’s PEAC meeting, CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg and President Sheila Cohen held a small group discussion with SDE Commissioner Dianna Wentzell and New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarello on the question of the appropriate use of state mastery tests.

CEA leadership pressed the state’s Performance Evaluation Advisory Council (PEAC) today to answer a fundamental question: What is the purpose of the state mastery test?

Frustrated that the group has examined the same question for months—with no progress on articulating an answer—CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg told PEAC members, “We’re retilling already tilled soil. What I’m suggesting is that we have to define, as a body, the appropriate use of a mastery test in the state of Connecticut. We need to make a recommendation to the state of Connecticut. We need to take a position on that. If we can’t agree on the purpose of the state test and how it’s going to be used, then we’re lost.”

At today’s PEAC meeting in Hartford, Waxenberg and CEA President Sheila Cohen, who represent teachers on the council, reiterated the Association’s position that state mastery tests should not be used in teacher evaluation.

“The threshold question is, ‘What is the role of the mastery test?’” said Waxenberg. “I hold that it’s to give a 50,000-foot view that can inform resource allocation, curriculum alignment, professional development, and instructional strategies at the district level, at the building level, or even the classroom level.”

Information gleaned from a state mastery test “creates inquiry,” he said, and that has to be examined. “That is where we gain knowledge about things like social justice, about fiscal or community needs, and then it’s the role of the local district to address those issues and get at the root of why students are not progressing along the continuum.”

Waxenberg cautioned, however, that the use of individual state mastery test scores in individual teachers’ evaluations is inappropriate. “Either the purpose of the state test is to drive curriculum or to evaluate teachers. You cannot use it to serve two masters.”

Cohen agreed. “To be clear, a mastery test should be used to drive instruction—not for teacher evaluation. If the purpose of the test is programmatic, when you attach a high-stakes purpose to it, it undermines the value of the test. As soon as you attach a high-stakes component to any test, it becomes very flawed.”

David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, concurred that the tests “were never designed to evaluate teachers,” adding, “If we return to that, we’re going to return to teachers teaching to the test, because their jobs depend on it.”

Referring to mounting evidence that the state’s current mastery exam—SBAC—is an inappropriate tool for evaluating teachers, Waxenberg implored the council, “Read Popham. Read all the states that have abandoned it. You can bang a nail with a rock, but is it the right tool to use?” Others in the room agreed that the right assessment can be used for the wrong reasons.

“We started out with a question that we needed answered,” said Cohen. “We still haven’t answered the question: Are we going to use a high-stakes standardized test score in a teacher’s evaluation?”

CEA is one of many public education stakeholder groups that sit on the council that advises the State Board of Education on teacher evaluation. CEA advocates for ending the unfair, invalid practice of linking teacher evaluations to statewide, high-stakes standardized test scores—a purpose for which they were never intended.

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