Bill Schechter

Boston Globe/ Op Ed
October 19, 2005

In a recent front page story, the Boston Globe characterized the latest MCAS scores as a "Crucial Leap." But this is one leap that needs another look. A dutiful reader would have had plow though a three-page spread to reach the last paragraph and learn that scores in the early and middle grades have shown either no progress or have declined for the second year in a row.

In fairness, Commissioner of Education David Driscoll had tried to prepare Globe readers for the bad news a week before the school scores were released. "We need to do something different," he said, somewhat discouraged. Even if 10th grade scores suggested some progress, it's clear that student MCAS scores still correlate highly with what a parent earns, his or her skin color, and where the school is located.

The Education Reform Act was enacted in 1993, and passing MCAS became a graduation requirement in 2001. We are now more than five years and hundreds of millions of dollars into this version of top-down education reform. So, where has it gotten us, and where is it taking us?

Don't look to statistics for quick answers. We are drowning in contradictory studies. MCAS supporters will cite rising 10th grade scores; detractors, the falling lower grade scores. (In the absence of long-term trends, no one can actually explain why scores are going up or down).

Then there are debates about the significance of the alarming high school dropout rates (approaching 50% in some urban areas), and the possibility that MCAS testing is pushing the most vulnerable kids out of school, which also artificially inflates the 10th grade passing rates. Most recently, studies have highlighted a rising college drop-out rate in Massachusetts, a "crucial leap" in the wrong direction that may well be related to the MCAS test prep approach.

Amidst all this point/ counterpoint, it is difficult for parents and taxpayers to evaluate the state of education in Massachusetts. Most of us don't have the time to do more than scan the MCAS score chart as we would the baseball standings, to see where our own school system stands, and to place our faith in the seeming objectivity of numbers.

From the vantage point of my 34-years as a public school teacher, I want to offer not more statistics, but rather three observations based on my classroom experience:

Testing students is important, but no test particularly the standardized variety is good enough to stand alone as an evaluative instrument for determining grades, to say nothing of fitness to graduate high school. Colleges accept this assertion as rock solid truth, which is why almost all rely on a multi-assessment approach for evaluating applicants. The belief that a single test or kind of test can be conclusive on this level is based on pure pseudo-science.

Education should be intellectually rigorous and creative, involving tests, essays, lab work, research, and discussion. It should stimulate the natural curiosity of children and reinforce a love of learning. The punitive approach MCAS utilizes is not only way to make education work. Proof can be found in the many fine public schools in this state, with the highest standards, that daily refute the theory of learning based on fear. The experience of these schools runs wider and deeper than that of charters, and should be examined.

Finally, those who believe we can decisively improve our schools amidst a deepening social inequality are failing the test of reality. Schools are woven into the fabric of a larger society and we'll never have equal educational achievement until we mend our social safety net, provide jobs with decent pay and health care, and begin to close the widening wealth gap that undermines so many families. Right now, the playing field is tilted at a 45-degree angle, and most of our MCAS "failures" the learning disabled, the poor, the immigrant are sliding right off.

The MCAS approach to public school reform is expanding. Science and history are already being pre-tested, at a high cost in taxpayer dollars and school time. The state Board of Education also wants to raise the passing score.

Enough with the fear and the #2 pencils and the 3rd graders with stomach aches. Yes, we must help students meet the challenge of passing tests. But the challenge that parents and educators face involves carefully assessing varied evidence of student achievement, and encouraging our children's development as enthusiastic, life-long learners.

Bill Schechter is a history teacher at
Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School.

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