The answer is complicated, but one thing is certain: You won't find the answer in invidious school comparisons based on superficial analyses or rankings.
Allow me to state my point more clearly: The standardized test scores upon which so many base the success or failure of a school are superficial at best. That being said, good standardized tests, such as the Connecticut Mastery Test and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, measure the achievement of state standards and basic skills, which every student should know and be able to demonstrate. Our objective is to ensure that students achieve mastery of the basic skills and state standards and, further, attain the capacities outlined in the Vision of the Graduate.
As parents and as educators, we ask ourselves: Are we providing our students with the skills they will need as they pursue higher education and/or the world of work? We know that the knowledge, skills and experiences that they will need to be competitive in the college admissions process or the job market go far beyond what can be measured by any standardized test. We know that the college admissions process is changing the emphasis on the SAT is shifting to the ACT, and some schools are providing other options rather than basing admission decisions on standardized test scores. Colleges are recognizing that standardized testing is not the only or truest predictor of a student's success. We also know that employers are looking for more than the 'three R's' they want to see "the four C's: Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity." Therefore, the question is, how do we measure how well our graduates are prepared to lead productive lives and meet the challenges posed by a rapidly changing global economy?
The starting point is to agree on what knowledge, skills and attributes every student should have attained upon graduation. That's why the district adopted its Vision of the Graduate. This one-page document summarizes what the Board of Education, parents, community members and district educators believe each graduate should be striving to achieve upon graduation. We believe that the following indicators should be used to measure the success of our graduates.
Capstone Projects: The written and performance-based work of students on projects demonstrating mastery of the curriculum rather than multiple choice tests provides a much clearer picture of achievement of a core body of knowledge and our Vision of the Graduate. The district is designing projects for grades 5, 8 and 12.
Longitudinal Data on Graduates: We should collect and analyze longitudinal data to indicate how well prepared our graduates are for college or the world of work. We should be making performance comparisons to our nation's international rivals rather than our neighboring districts.
Empirical evidence provided by standardized assessments (AP, SAT, CMT and CAPT results): Hopefully, these tests will begin to measure what we as a district value for our students' education.
Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford professor of education, wrote in an article in The Nation on June 14 about international comparisons of student achievement. She noted that while student performance using No Child Left Behind standardized tests has improved, our international standing has declined. She attributed this to the fact that international assessments demand more advanced analysis than most U.S. tests, and require students to weigh and balance evidence, apply what they know to new problems and explain and defend their answers. Lower level multiple choice testing inhibits this kind of learning. We need to achieve a better balance in the assessments used between content and process.
Our students perform competitively with the highest-achieving districts in the state and in the nation in venues beyond standardized test scores. The Greenwich Public Schools provide challenging and diverse opportunities for students in all academic, co-curricular and extra-curricular areas. We provide numerous and diverse academic offerings, including more than fifteen Advanced Placement courses. More than 90 percent of our high school students take three or more years of at least one of seven World Languages offered, including Mandarin Chinese. Our Mandarin Chinese language program has been awarded a national grant in recognition of its potential as a model Chinese Language program for the U.S. Our science program boasts an Honors Science Research Seminar guiding students in conducting significant and in-depth scientific inquiry. At least one student has advanced to the Intel-International Science and Engineering Fair each year for the last four years, resulting in various awards and scholarships. The GHS Math Team is pursuing the state championship title this year for what would be the third year in a row. Our "We the People: The Citizen and The Constitution" team has just been named State Champions for the fourth year in row taking it to the national competition in Washington, D.C., where it has performed within the top 20 teams across the nation for the last two years. Our students captured first and second place in the 26th annual Shakespeare competition sponsored by the English Speaking Union and Smith College. Our theater program was designated for the fourth time in 2010 by the Educational Theater Association as one of the top High School Theater programs in the country. Our vocal and instrumental musicians present award winning performances at the state, regional and national level, too many to mention here, and the high school has been designated as a "Signature School" by the Grammy Foundation. Our athletic program provides opportunities to participate in 42 sports and 99 teams, competing for county and state championships regularly in most sports. Most recently, the GHS Girls Swimming Team won both the State Open and Class LL Championships and the Girls Volleyball Team won the Class LL State Championship. The opportunities and achievements of our students in these areas are too numerous and varied to "aggregate" into a single data point, yet they are none-the-less significant as measures of our students' successes and are consistent with the Vision of the Graduate.
Statistically, there isn't much difference between our results on standardized tests and the results of comparable districts in Connecticut. On CMT reading, writing and mathematics, 92 percent of Greenwich students scored at the proficient level and 43 percent scored at the advanced level; in comparable districts (District Reference Group B), 94 percent of the students scored at the proficient level and 45 percent scored at the advanced level. Growth in the reading and mathematics achievement of Greenwich students from the end of third grade to the end of eighth grade compares favorably with the highest-performing districts in Connecticut. The average combined reading and mathematics score of Greenwich students taking the SAT exceed that of DRG B students by 31 points (1134 to 1103). Participation in Advanced Placement courses is higher in Greenwich than in DRG B and the percentage of students qualifying for college credit on AP exams is also higher, 84 percent as compared with 81 percent. Given the standard error of measure on standardized tests and differences in student populations, we are in danger of making distinctions without differences among the top performing districts. Is the No. 1-ranked school system based on CMT or CAPT scores in Connecticut the best school system in Connecticut? Not necessarily.
This is not to say that we can't and shouldn't improve our standardized test results. We must continuously strive to ensure that each of our students achieve mastery of the basic knowledge and skills assessed on the CMT and the CAPT. We have a strategic plan for improvement that is research based, and it is working. We will continue to invest in the solid implementation of these improvement strategies rather than fall prey to a knee-jerk reaction to superficial analyses and external comparisons. We will stay the course. Furthermore, we don't believe that the measure of our students' or our schools' success can be determined by a single standardized test.
I am not making excuses for our test performance. I believe that we will improve our results on standardized tests, but not at the expense of sacrificing meaningful outcomes. Improvement will happen. It will happen because we are strengthening our classroom instruction, aligning our curriculum and focusing on attaining our Vision of the Graduate, all in service of providing each of our students with a rich educational experience.
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