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.