About 100 Staples High School students stepped into the debate over Connecticut's new education reform law Monday, staging a quiet demonstration before morning classes to voice concerns about the act's reliance on standardized test results to evaluate teachers.
The education package, Public Act 12-116, was signed into law last month by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The demonstrators said they do not oppose all of the reform measures, but are instead seeking to raise public awareness to help to persuade the state Performance Evaluation Advisory Council to ensure a more holistic approach in formulating new teacher-evaluation programs mandated by the legislation.
Based on the language of PA 12-116, between 22.5 percent and 45 percent of new teacher-evaluation criteria could be linked to standardized test results, according to student organizers of the protest.
"We're protesting the portion of 12-116 that bases teacher evaluation on standardized tests," said junior Douglas Russ. "We fear that doing that is going to lead to more teachers teaching to standardized tests rather innovating in the classroom."
PA 12-116, also known as Senate Bill 458, expands the required components of state guidelines for a model teacher-evaluation program and local school districts' teacher and school administrator evaluation programs. Among its requirements for the model evaluation program, the new law calls for creation of a four-tier rating system.
Students began to assemble outside the front entrance of Staples' building about 7 a.m. By the start of the school day at 7:30 a.m., the crowd had grown to about 100. Most students wore name stickers, scribbled with numbers such as 71% or 580, on their shirts. The numbers connoted hypothetical test scores, which students said indicated their worries about the new law's emphasis on standardized testing as a means to judge teachers' performance.
"Everything shouldn't be defined by a number," said junior Andrew Bowles. "Qualitative factors -- that's really what evaluations should be about."
At 7:30 a.m., a few students briefly addressed the crowd.
"It's really important for the students to show their support," said junior Mike Holtz. "We've seen what the teachers have done, but it also matters that the students have come out to talk about this."
The gathering quietly dispersed about 7:40 a.m. as the protesters filed into the building.
Several educators also attended the gathering.
"Test scores have some value if you want to judge a school system or even a state," said Dick Leonard, a retired Staples English teacher and former president of the Westport teachers' union. "But I do not think they should be used for individual teachers to determine how good a teacher is. To deal with it in terms of how well a teacher teaches based on the way a kid fills out a grid, it's just not worth it. "
The idea for the demonstration emerged from a rhetoric-based project started last month in an Advanced Placement English class, said junior Jacob Meisel. Students plan to continue their public awareness campaign about PA 12-116 by attending Monday's Board of Education meeting and circulating a petition, according to Meisel.
"We realized that we could have a lot of influence showing the state that students would not support any raise in the amount of standardized tests used to grade teachers," Meisel added. "We wanted to take rhetoric to the real world. We'd used it to write essays before, but we hadn't used it to convince a large-scale audience that there are bigger issues at stake."
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