Monday, July 6, 2009

Will this be on the test?

I was in a cab today with a public school teacher. A very intelligent fellow who teaches French in a public high school, in a city west of Boston.

He described a phenomenon in his school that made me truly wonder if something resembling learning was still possible in the Massachusetts public schools.

About five years ago I started hearing about something called MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. In nuce, it is a standardized test that every student must pass in order to receive a high school diploma. My impression at that time was that public school teachers were not so much giving their students an education as they were preparing them to pass the test. In other words: the students were not really "learning" -- they were simply "studying for the MCAS."

If this French teacher I met today is giving an accurate impression of the affects of MCAS, I am truly pessimistic about the possibility of a child to learn something in Massachusetts' public schools.

Even the honors students -- especially the honors students -- are categorically uninterested in learning any aspect of the French language, unless the teacher convincingly assures them that "it will be on the test." Even the best students are not interested in actually learning French; they hope only to "pass the test." Recently this teacher had a conversation with one of the brightest students in his French III class. The student was slacking off a bit. "Don't you want to go on to French IV next year?"

"Yes," the student answered, "but only because it'll look good on my college applications."

You can imagine, then, what this has done to the art and music programs in Massachusetts' public schools ... In times of war or economic crisis, the arts are more crucial to quality of life than ever. Yet never have the arts been more of a nuisance to public school superintendents than they are now. Never have those programs been more eagerly cut; and never have the honors students been more eagerly advised by guidance counselors to avoid them.

I did a Google search, to see if this guy's story was really accurate. I came across a disturbing document that is worth quoting in full.

What is the MCAS?
The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is a set of standardized exams administered to students in grades 3 through 10. Students must pass the tests in English and mathematics to receive a high school diploma, and students with high marks can receive financial aid to state colleges and universities.

What's wrong with using the MCAS this way?
Newspaper headlines about improving MCAS pass rates leave out important pieces of the story, like its effects on individual students. Tracey Newhart, a 20-year-old high school student with Down Syndrome, is an award-winning cook who wanted to attend Johnson & Wales University, get a degree, and open her own restaurant. She has overcome many obstacles to fulfill her high school's local graduation requirements. Unfortunately, Tracey was kept from achieving her goals when Johnson and Wales rescinded her acceptance after she failed the MCAS.

Supporters of high-stakes testing promote examples of other students, some with disabilities like Tracey's, who have passed state exit exams. They say these students now have "meaningful" diplomas that indicate they have mastered "a high-quality state curriculum." They say pass rates are up, and even disadvantaged groups of students are doing better on the tests.

Is education better because of high-stakes testing?
A growing body of evidence from researchers says no.

* High-stakes testing degrades rather than improves the quality of education. Researchers
have consistently found that high-stakes testing puts pressure on educators to teach and on
students to memorize vast amounts of information so they can pass the tests. Scores may rise, but test preparation crowds out more worthwhile learning that fosters critical thinking, in-depth exploration, and creativity, as well as basic skills.

* The negative consequences of such testing fall hardest on those who need help most.
Schools that serve low-income or minority students are most likely to narrow curricula because of intense pressure to improve test results. While schools in higher-income communities can offer art, science, history, and music and still maintain their test scores, schools with students who score low on such tests end up offering little more than intensive test preparation in math and English.

* When high-stakes tests come in, graduation rates decline. National studies find a correlation
between high-stakes testing and declining graduation rates, increased dropout rates, greater grade retention, more students being expelled (in some cases to drive out low scorers), and increased exemptions of disabled students.

* In states with exit exams, the students who drop out, fail, or are held back are
disproportionately low-income, minority, special needs, or have limited English proficiency.
By denying diplomas to students such as Tracey Newhart and others, even if they have passed
their courses and succeeded by other measures, high-stakes testing makes their lives much harder.

Real improvement in learning opportunities and meaningful accountability for schools is achieved through a range of assessments, not a single test.
In Rhode Island, for example, students can show they have met state graduation standards through a variety of approaches. Many award-winning schools serving disadvantaged youth, such as the small schools associated with the work of Boston educator Deborah Meier, don't focus on test scores, with excellent results.

What is high-stakes testing's toll in Massachusetts?
While rising MCAS pass rates are front-page news, rising dropout rates in Boston and other low income, urban districts get less attention and seem to be soon forgotten. Here's the headline from the April 6, 2004 Boston Globe, Page B3: "HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT RATES ARE UP SHARPLY." Anand Vaishnav reported, "Dropout rates in some of Massachusetts' biggest school systems spiked in 2002-03, the first year that students had to pass the MCAS exam to graduate. Boston public schools' dropout rate went from 7 percent to 7.7 percent, or 1,405 students. In Holyoke, the dropout rate increased from 7.6 percent to 10.2 percent, according to state figures released yesterday. That translates to about 200 students for the Western Massachusetts city. The rate more than doubled in Framingham, from 1.2 percent to 3.7 percent, or a total of 73 students, the state Department of Education report shows. Some individual schools had even higher rates. At Dorchester High School, 1 of every 5 students dropped out last year, compared with a 12.7 percent dropout rate in 2001-02."

But MCAS passing rates are way up. Doesn.t that show things are getting better?
Improvements in MCAS passing scores reflect, in part, the large number of students who are
"lost" from the Class of 2006. Although they started high school with the class, they are not
present for testing. Closing test score gaps may simply reflect the loss of more African American and Latino students relative to white students.

Overall, the number of students who took the MCAS in the spring of 2004 is considerably lower than the number who were enrolled in the class in 9th grade in October 2002. Attrition between entering grade 9 and taking MCAS math in grade 10 is nearly 15 percent for the Class of 2006 as a whole.

The claim that the achievement gap between white students and minorities is closing is debatable, at the very least, when so many minority students leave school before taking the MCAS. African American and Latino students are lost from the class of 2006 before MCAS at much higher rates than for white students: 10 percent for whites, 27 percent for Blacks and 34 percent for Latino students.

Prior to 2003, before MCAS was required for graduation, Boston's on-time four-year graduation rate (for the classes of 2000 and 2001, for example) was 61 percent. For the class of 2003, it dropped to 53 percent; for the class of 2004, it was 52 percent. If the Board of Education raises passing scores, as recently proposed, those dropout rates will be even higher.

Lower graduation rates in Boston Public Schools mean that EVERY YEAR, approximately 300 more of the city's young people leave school without a high school diploma.

They may no longer be in school, but they are still part of our community.

For more information, I urge you to visit