The Massachusetts Education Reform Law of 1993 called for the creation of a comprehensive assessment of the progress of public school students in order to improve education and equalize school funding. Politicians felt that the easiest, cheapest, fastest way to assess was to test, and a monster was born. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is a series of standardized tests administered to all Massachusetts public school students in grades three through ten. Rolled out in 1998, the tests are intended to gauge a student's knowledge of English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science/Technology relative to the learning standards set down in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks. Student scores are reported in each subject as “Failing”, “Needs Improvement”, “Proficient”, or “Advanced”. A student must reach the “Needs Improvement” level in all subject areas in the tenth grade tests (or in subsequent retakes) in order graduate from any Massachusetts public high school.

While all agree that the MA school system was in need of a swift kick in the balls, the MCAS is wrong for the job. High-stakes, high-pressure standardized tests cannot possibly comprehensively measure the knowledge of most students. The massive amounts of time dedicated to test prep and administration could be much better used in the classroom, and portfolios or other multidimensional methods would be much better measures of achievement.

Another unfair aspect of this is that absolutely no group of public school students are spared testing, even if they are ludicrously unsuited for the exam. Because tests are only offered in English and Spanish, there is absolutely no way that someone new to the US from most parts of the world could succeed on even the mathematics and science portions of the exams. Regardless, ESL students are required to take all three tests in a language completely unknown to them.

Special education students, even those that are severely developmentally impaired, are similarly required to sit through hours of testing that they cannot hope to pass. Kids that recieve special accomodations for learning disabilities in the classroom are rarely allowed the same aids during testing, almost guaranteeing a poor showing of skills they might indeed possess

Voc-tech kids are another population stomped on by MCAS testing. Though they have only half the classroom time of their traditional high school counterparts, they are still expected to reach the same level of academic accomplishment. No one is arguing that technical high school students do not need basic skills, but it seems obvious that they should only be accountable for what they have had time to learn. Also, trade students are also often kinesthetic learners, and thus may experience their highest levels of achievement in the workshop portion of their education. The MCAS, though ostensibly “comprehensive assessment” of public education, does not test trade skills though they constitute a full 50% of a vocational student’s education!

Massachusetts’ school district funding is provided by local property taxes. Rich neighborhoods = excellent schools, slums equal failing, crummy schools. Though the testing is supposed to provide the grounds for the redistribution of wealth in the form of state aid, almost all state money received by poor schools is earmarked only for test preparation or post-failure tutorial. No real educational gains are being made by low income students, particularly those that are minorities.

Massachusetts students have bourn the brunt of an inadequate, inequitable educational system for far too long to accept ill-conceived “reforms” that do little but keep the wrong people in office. It is time for MA citizens to invest time and effort, as well as increased tax dollars, to a project that will pay even bigger social dividends than the Big Dig.

The bias against standardized testing has been growing rapidly in the last few years in high schools all over the United States. To a certain degree, it's very hard for me to look at that opposition with an impartial eye, because so many of the complaints come from overprotective parents of underachieving students who feel that their children deserve better.

I live in a suburban community where the system of honors classes has been broken down by waivers that allow parents to push their children into the honors track even if they failed their previous class. And they're used liberally. This anti-evaluation trend gets bigger every day.

That said, the MCAS really is a very bad thing.

amri makes some good points above. Last year I met a whole lot of vocational students who were taking the test over and over but not passing -- they hadn't even covered the material on it. I moved to the Massachusetts public school system in seventh grade and got mildly stiffed by the transfer, since I hadn't completed the standardized fifth- and sixth-grade humanities curriculum.

That same standardization has been wreaking havok with schools across the state, besides. The MCAS has become the standard lesson plan; geography was cut at my middle school in order to cover more MCAS material. The test cripples teachers' and schools' ability to determine their own methods and subjects.

Moreso, MCAS preparation services in the vein of the Princeton Review have sprung up everywhere -- even though the scores are largely meaningless.

The worst part, however, is the effect that the test has on underperforming districts. In Springfield, Massachusetts, 45 percent of students failed one of the test's two sections. In more suburban Longmeadow (remember, as amri said: rich neighborhoods = better schools), 3 percent failed, only five miles away.

Proponents of the MCAS take this opportunity to say "The tests are working! We've found problem school districts!" Gee. I could pretty easily have told you that without spending millions of dollars. Besides, little or no aid is actually funneling down to these schools -- the failure rates are going up, not down. Moreso, the students who are being denied diplomas are dropping out in great numbers; truancy in Massachusetts cities has reached unprecedented highs.

The anti-testing fervor is a very, very bad thing -- but the MCAS is no better.

It's true about "students new to this country." A girl in my school moved from France and was forced to take the test on her second week in the country -- and, in fact, her fourth week of English.

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