The Day on 07 March 2006

Connecticut Mastery Test: We're Not Going to Take it Anymore

by Jeff Benedict

Connecticut Mastery Test: We're Not Going to Take it Anymore

This week, students across Connecticut are taking the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT), administered to all public schoolchildren in third through eighth grades. For weeks leading up to the test, true learning takes a recess while teachers chew up valuable class time giving practice tests and drilling students on test-taking techniques. Privately, educators joke: All learning stops during the CMT.
But no one stops to question the CMT or the law that mandates it; that is, until now. Last week, East Lyme Board of Education member Andrew Dousis sent a letter to his child's third-grade principal, informing the principal that his child would not take the test this year. Mr. Dousis, who has taught elementary education for more than a decade in East Lyme, has seen the CMT's flaws firsthand. For instance, test results often don't come back until six months later. How beneficial is that for the student?

Education officials have questioned whether it's legal for Dousis to withhold his daughter from the CMT. The state law governing mandatory testing says that all public-school children enrolled in grades three through eight "shall annually take a statewide mastery examination."

"Shall" is a strong word, probably too strong to hold up under a constitutional challenge. The Constitution affords broad rights to parents when it comes to the education of their children.

Nonetheless, in reacting to the Dousis situation, a spokesman from the state's Department of Education told The Day, "The law is the law, and they have to be tested."

Upside-Down Approach

The implication is that Mr. Dousis and parents like him are breaking the law by exercising a fundamental parental right. This approach is upside-down. An 8-year-old third-grader should not be forced to take a test against the will of a parent and under threat of civil or criminal prosecution.

Mr. Dousis may be the first board of education member in the state's history to hold his child back from the test. He's hardly the first or only parent, however. In East Lyme alone, there are at least seven children -- two at Niantic Center School, two at Flanders Elementary School and three at the East Lyme Middle School -- who are not taking the CMT this year. I represent the parents of three of these children, including Mr. Dousis. These families retained me after being told they may face allegations of truancy or other violations of law.

These parents are conscientious, law-abiding people with more than 20 years of experience working in the public schools. The suggestion that their actions are illegal and harmful to their children goes against the Constitution and common sense.

The state Department of Education may insist a child must take the test. But the publishers of the CMT apparently have a different take. The bottom left-hand corner on the back cover of each test booklet contains a bubble with the words "Left Blank" beside it. All teachers and proctors are provided a "Test Examiner's Manual," which tells them what to do in case a student opts not to answer any test questions. "A 'Left Blank' bubble should be filled in only when a student attended the test session but did not respond to any questions," the manual says.

Clear Alternative

Of course, parents and children are not told about this provision. But it's there in black and white, right under the heading: "Students Who Leave the Test Blank."

Technically, according to some administrators, a child whose test is scored as "Left Blank" may still be counted as having participated in the test. But that child no more took the test than I did.

There are other lawful options for a parent opposed to the CMT. At Niantic Center School this past week, for example, two sets of parents notified the principal that their children would not take the CMT. The notice was not in writing and in one case the reasons were not disclosed. One of the children spent the first day of testing in the school library reading while other students underwent the exam. The other child remained home during the test period.

After the first day of testing, an agreement was reached between the parents and principal, enabling one child to remain home during the test and then return to school afterward. This way the child is not marked absent from school. The other child is abstaining from the test under a similar arrangement. Neither of these children will ever see the CMT test, much less take it.

This sensible and thoughtful approach is in the best interest of the individual child, respectful of parental rights, and protects families from coming into conflict with state truancy laws.

Connecticut's mandatory test law contains no wording to force children to take the CMT. Nor does it proscribe penalties for parents whose children opt out. Any efforts to change the law by adding an enforcement or punitive clause to the law would no doubt touch off a constitutional contest between parental rights and an overreaching law.

High-Pressure Tactics

Thanks to the federal No Child Left Behind law, states and school districts across the country are increasingly being forced to test more often and at younger ages. Children as young as 8 years old are being subjected to high-pressure test tactics previously reserved for high school and college students. And states are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the publishing houses that print these tests. Who is really scoring here?

It's time to examine the exam and the notion that parents who object to it are acting unlawfully.

Jeff Benedict is an attorney and an author who lives in East Lyme.