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An odd letter from the president of the Nashua Teachers Union

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Rep. David Murotake (R-Nashua) has been quoting Nashua teachers saying, anonymously, that the Smarter Balanced test is bad.  Yesterday he circulated a letter from Nashua Teachers’ Union president Robert Sherman making some of the same points.  This being the first time I’d seen these complaints with a name attached, I had a lot of questions for Mr. Sherman.  I haven’t heard back but if I do I will post his response.  Here’s my email:

Mr. Sherman, Nashua Teachers’ Union President ,

Rep. Murotake has forwarded your NHDOE letter to the House Education Committee saying that it is “germane to your consideration of HB1432…,” a bill that would suspend all annual assessments of any kind in New Hampshire.  I have several questions about your letter.

First, did you intend – or anticipate – that your letter would be used politically in support of HB 1432?  And did you know that HB 1432 would violate federal law, risk $116 million in federal funding for New Hampshire and violate the State’s No Child Left Behind waiver agreement, putting Nashua and the rest of New Hampshire back under NCLB and AYP ratings?

Second, Superintendent Conrad has told the Nashua Board of Education that the district has the bandwidth and technology necessary needed for the test.  You say that’s not true.  You even assert that your computer monitors are too small, although the Smarter Balanced test requires just a 10 inch monitor. Can you provide any evidence at all for your various assertions that Nashua will not be technologically prepared for the Smarter Balanced test a year from now?

You go on to complain about the 12 week testing window.  Which schools will need to use the full 12 week window?  What testing window do you anticipate that most schools will use?  And, most importantly, do you think that the variability introduced by the 12 week window should be a significant factor in deciding whether to proceed with Smarter Balanced?

Then you say that the test items are not developmentally appropriate, that they are “aggressively punitive, age inappropriate and impersonal in nature to the student.”  That’s hard to square with how the test has been developed.  According to Joe Wilhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, more than 2,000 educators have contributed to building Smarter Balanced. More than 500 teachers wrote and reviewed questions.  Researchers sat with students as they worked through various types of questions to see where students might get stuck.  Then hundreds of students have tried each question.

So far, I’ve seen only anonymous quotes from Nashua teachers objecting to the test, but I would very much like to talk with them myself.  Because the educators I’ve talked with all over New Hampshire disagree with you about the quality of the test:

  • Look at what the Sanborn teachers said after taking the same test.
  • And Melissa Keenan, assistant superintendent at White Mountains Regional School District, testified that “While, of course, we are nervous about being prepared and doing well, our teachers are excited about a number of features associated with Smarter Balanced.” Then she goes on to list some of the benefits of the new test.
  • As Lisa Witte, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at SAU 34, testified, “Test anxiety is very real…However, it is inaccurate to arbitrarily attribute them specifically to the Common Core or any single assessment….The adaptive nature of the Smarter Balanced Assessment – presenting questions of varying levels to students in response to incorrect or correct answers on previous questions – will reduce anxiety, boost confidence, and have the added benefit of providing a better picture of ‘where students are’ for teachers to use in planning future instruction.”
  • Dr. Elaine Arbour, assistant superintendent in Claremont, testified that, in her region of the state, “Curriculum Administrators and teachers believe that the increased rigor is a positive development that will support our students’ readiness to compete in a global economy.”
  • Dr. Mark V. Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, testified, “I would certainly agree that [the new tests] are more challenging than some prior local standards but if we expect our students to improve in their overall achievement – whether in comparison to another state or country – it is only logical that we need to teach more rigorous lessons.”

Nashua teachers seem to be in the minority.

And, finally, I’m sure you must realize that NCLB requires a single state-wide annual assessment.  So on what basis do you anticipate that NHDOE could disregard federal law and allow Nashua to choose whatever test it wanted?

In closing, Mr. Sherman, I want to point out that your national union leadership has taken the position that there should be a moratorium on high-stakes consequences linked to the test.  But that’s what we already have in New Hampshire.  There are no stakes at all, for teachers or students, in the first two years of test results.  This will give a fair amount of time to work through your teachers’ anxieties and provide feedback to improve the Smarter Balanced test.  Even after that, there is wide latitude for you to negotiate an evaluation plan with the Nashua Board of Education because New Hampshire’s NCLB waiver makes quite modest stipulations about the role of testing in teacher evaluation.

Yours truly,

Bill Duncan

Advancing New Hampshire Public Education


  1. Bill, you haven’t even mentioned the concerns that parents have concerning the data mining from these tests. How about addressing this?

  2. Scott Marion says:

    Bill, I think you raised multiple points that should be addressed by the Nashua teachers union. It is too bad that the union made this a political issue. If they really cared about improving the quality of Smarter Balanced, there are many avenues that could have been taken to get their comments to those responsible for test creation. Is SBAC perfect? No! Was NECAP perfect? Again, no! But NECAP was a pretty good test and Smarter Balanced will be even better. I would ask the Nashua teachers to recommend an alternative test that would be a better measure of the common core, especially one where districts can be compared with others so they might be able to judge the quality of CCSS implementation in their schools.

  3. As one of the authors of this letter, I’m offended by your post. If there’s any odd, it’s your claim that nearly 1000 teachers are in the minority on this issue because you cite the opinions of a couple of administrators and a few teachers. There are serious flaws in this test; the most salient one being is that the questions are developmentally inappropriate for children. You’re right, the test isn’t complete, yet by taking the practice tests, one can ascertain how the questions shall be asked. I took the third grade SBT practice test after taking the 8th grade. The questions (written like questions on the GREs. There’s no way a child could do well on it, even if the questions get easier.

    There are other tests out there that assess the Common Core. We need to look at those to see if they meet our testing needs because clearly this test–in it’s most current iteration–does not. You say the test isn’t complete yet; however, the plan is to roll it out next year.

    Lastly, we do have serious issues regarding technology in our District, despite what others may say. This was one point that all the teachers who endorsed this statement (by the way, no one voted against it) agreed on. I’m so sure why you’re so big on this test–it’s absolutely the wrong move for the children of New Hampshire.

    • Bill Duncan says:

      I’m sorry you are offended, smarterspendingcap. Let me try to respond to your comments.

      You say that 1,000 teachers agree with Mr. Sherman’s letter and you mention a vote with no dissenters. How many teachers voted, if you don’t mind my asking?

      On whether the test questions are developmentally appropriate, I could believe there’d be clunker questions in the mix but the students and faculty involved in the last Smarter Balanced pilot test did not report the problems you have observed. They did say that the test was hard. It seems to me that that’s ok. There will surely be a learning curve both for how to take this kind of test and getting far enough in Common Core based instruction that the test is testing what students are learning. But that’s all part of getting started on any new test, especially one aligned to standards you are just beginning to use in your classrooms.

      Yes, there are at least 11 other tests out there aligned, to some degree or other, with the Common Core. And a major study by by the Michigan DOE found Smarter Balanced test to be superior by far.

      Moreover, the State must – logically and by federal law – give the same test state-wide in order to compare student scores. As I said in my letter to Mr. Sherman, NHDOE does not have the option of granting you a waiver based on local concerns. Just last fall your board considered and rejected Dr. Murotake’s motion to make this same request of the State. So there’s clearly a legitimate difference of opinion on this issue in Nashua.

      On the technology, I have no firsthand knowledge and would certainly defer to those of you who use your school technology every day. But, as a technology person myself, I just don’t get the references to things like screen sizes. Where does that come from, anyway?

      I do see how technology issues could be a frustration for teachers day-to-day, but the district has the obligation to solve whatever issues there are and has a lot of options for doing that over the next year. In any case, I don’t see how switching to some other on-line test would help. And if you would rather use a paper test, you can use the Smarter Balanced test without running afoul of federal law.

      All in all, smarterspendingcap, I’d be glad to engage in a real dialog on these issues, here or in person or in any way you would want. That’s why, after weeks of hearing Dr. Murotake’s anonymous quotes from Nashua teachers, I leapt at the opportunity to correspond with Mr. Sherman. I think real discussion of the issues, especially within your own district, will lead to practical solutions within the available framework.

      • Bill Duncan says:

        I just want to add that I have nothing but admiration for the spirit and commitment of the teachers I have met all over New Hampshire. I’ve seen that same dedication at Nashua board and curriculum committee meetings I have attended. My own conviction that the Common Core, and the test that goes with it, are the right direction for New Hampshire public education is based on what I’ve seen in our New Hampshire classrooms and what teachers have told me.

        Other states have not implemented the new standards with the same commitment to local control and to supportive rather than high-stakes teacher evaluation. But New Hampshire has done it right, so I think we should stay the course.

      • No one objected to the letter–over a dozen teachers helped write it. Everyone on the NTU’s BOD voted in favor of it (about 60 people). The letter was then sent out to the general membership prior to release in case anyone had any concerns. Instead of concerns, it was met with praise and gratitude by several additional members and no one expressed a differing opinion. So it’s pretty safe to say nearly 100% of the members support it.

        The teachers in Nashua are ready to fight this and we’d love to have your help Bill.

        • Bill Duncan says:

          Ok, got it. Sixty people, not 1,000 voted on it. And more people liked it. Personally, I’m not buying the 100%

          Sure, invite me down. I’ll bet I can talk you out of it.

  4. Scott Marion says:

    I too did not mean to offend anyone, but when serious assertions are put forward, they require strong evidence for backing. For example, this authoritative statement requires strong backing: “There are serious flaws in this test; the most salient one being is that the questions are developmentally inappropriate for children. ” This implies a deep knowledge of not just what might or might not be developmentally appropriate for the students you teach, but a broader understanding of children in general. These concepts have proven to be developmentally appropriate for students all over the world. Now, it would be fair to say that students in certain places haven’t been instructed on these concepts, but that doesn’t make the concepts developmentally inappropriate.

    A second issue raised that would require strong evidence is the notion that there are many other tests out there “aligned” to the common core. I know of one other, PARCC, the other testing consortium. I also know of several others that purport to be aligned with the common core, but alignment requires that the depth of thinking required in the standards (depth of knowledge) is reflected in the test. It does NOT mean some superficial matching of some nominal content categories, such as, “The CCSS requires adding fractions in grade X and my test has questions about adding fractions in the same grade.” In this case, one might say they were aligned, but that would be stretching the point, because it could be that the CCSS is asking kids to wrestle with solving problems that included fractions in many forms, while the test just asked simple worksheet-type problems. Unfortunately, this is what we are seeing with many of the companies that are saying they have CCSS-aligned tests. Of course, here’s where the evidence comes in. Such companies can subject their tests to truly independent alignment studies to really see how much they reflect the true intent of the CCSS and then publish the results for all to see!

    Why does this matter? We have good evidence that instruction is often geared to the demands of the test and not the standards. So if the test is at a much lower cognitive level than the standards, that’s all that will be expected of our kids and that’s too low!

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