One of the tough choices school superintendents around the state have to make in the 2013-14 school year is whether to stick with an obsolete state test or take a chance on a new online test that is still a work in progress.
During the annual Back to School meeting Wednesday at the State Capitol, state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor pushed state superintendents to embrace the future. That means replacing the Connecticut Mastery Test and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test with the new Smarter Balance online test, which is aligned to a revised statewide curriculum known as the Common Core.
All districts will have to adopt the new test in the following year, 2014-15. Pryor still has to win approval from the federal government to allow school districts to choose the new test this year, essentially field testing it one year before it becomes official.
Greenwich is among the town's aiming to get an early start. The town plans to adopt the new test this year.
"Going forward, we will be using a more rigorous and comprehensive assessment system," Superintendent William McKersie said earlier this week. "This transition will be a challenge, but will help energize and focus all professionals in the district."
Greenwich educators plan to continue administering the science portion of the Mastery Test for a couple of years. The science exams are only given to fifth- and eighth-graders. Otherwise, this year, out go the CMT and CAPT.
State officials blame a drop in 2013 CMT scores on students being taught to a new curriculum that was not covered on the current test. Statewide test scores released Tuesday were down across the board, in all grade and subject areas.
The push to get behind the new system and test was driven not only by Pryor -- who said he is optimistic that federal officials will give the state the green light to chose one test or the other -- but also by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Malloy, appearing for the third straight year at the annual superintendents' meeting, told more than 100 superintendents in attendance that he believes the new Common Core State Standards curriculum will be a turning point in the state's efforts to improve student achievement and close the largest-in-the-nation achievement gap.
Malloy also said he is doing all he can to make sure districts have what they need, including money to buy computer equipment necessary for the new tests. He went into office pledging to make education reform a top priority.
"The reality is, it is getting better," Malloy said of the economy. He promised a continued investment in education.
Districts have not yet been given a date to decide which test to use this year. A lot depends on the federal government. After indicating a willingness to be flexible, the U.S. Department of Education has yet to even create a waiver application that would allow districts to substitute the current test for the new test.
"Approved or not, the school year is upon us," Pryor said. "We have to move. It is time to proceed. We will proceed as if we have been approved."
The state is developing its own guidelines for flexibility. Those that opt for the new test have to be technologically prepared since the new test does not have a paper-and-pencil version.
Districts also have to be aware, said Pryor, that scores with the new test, at least this year, will be late, and will be delivered sometime next fall in raw-score fashion, as opposed to scores that compare students against set achievement targets.
While Greenwich is poised to move forward with the new test, other districts are not as optimistic about it.
Danbury Schools Superintendent Sal Pascarella, for example, left Wednesday's meeting unconvinced. Even though Danbury has rewritten its curriculum to comply with the new standards, Pascarella said there remain too many gray areas for him to subject students in his city school district to an unproven test.
"I don't know if it serves the district and the youngsters well," Pascarella said.
In Stamford there is disagreement over which test to use. Superintendent Winifred Hamilton said moving to the online test this school year makes sense. The district has the equipment, including iPads, and has received training.
But at least one Stamford school board member, Polly Rauh is concerned. She said during a meeting on Tuesday that she expects the new test will create "chaos."
The state has also asked the federal government to allow districts the option to not use the new test in evaluating teachers. That, too, is pending approval.