Is opting out of standardized testing in schools a cop-out or does this emerging form of civil disobedience make sense? Parental proponents oppose high stakes testing in public schools for numerous reasons including the stress imposed upon their children, the narrowing of curricula and the use of test results for teacher evaluation. They claim that their movement is gaining momentum and they hope that the soft breeze blowing across the land may morph into an intense windstorm and drive the high stakes juggernaut completely off course.
To be fair, all high stakes tests are not equal. The typical fill-in-the-bubble assessments used by many states to separate the passing wheat from failing chaff are not used in Massachusetts. The MCAS test includes long and short essays and some math problems that require students to write explanations of the processes that they use to arrive at answers. Some MCAS questions require not only knowledge but thought. For this reason, the MCAS is considered by some to be the most challenging high stakes assessment in the nation.
That said, there are valid reasons to be concerned about the use of the MCAS. The demands and penalties aimed directly at "underperforming" school systems force some schools to consume countless hours preparing students explicitly for the test. Concentrated preparation and practice get results.
Some parents spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars providing their children with specialized tutoring for the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. Such specialized instruction dramatically boosts scores. The same can be said for MCAS preparation. The difference is that SAT preparation does not replace school curricula. In communities with large at-risk populations, test preparation begins immediately in September and extends through the year until the tests are taken in April or May. This process is reinforced with commercially prepared "assessment tools" that provide additional data.
The test becomes the
The MCAS has its own vocabulary and well-established testing patterns that require students to respond in well-established ways to predictable questions. Some of the skills required by the MCAS are not transferable to other tests because they measure different skills in different ways. Careful item analysis of previously used test items often drives MCAS test preparation.
Grammar is taught but it is taught in ways that are measured by the test. Writing is approached the same way. This results in areas of academic strength exclusively nurtured for this assessment but areas of weakness when other tests are used. That is one reason that students can score well on MCAS tests and poorly on college placement tests. It is the reason why SAT scores can plummet in schools where MCAS scores are raised.
It also explains why more than 80 percent of the Massachusetts high school graduates who attend BCC must take remedial courses before they can fully matriculate. Claims about more rigor and higher academic achievement based exclusively on high stakes test results should be scrutinized carefully.
Higher MCAS scores do not always translate into better overall academic performance. A recent letter to the editor in The Eagle ("MCAS leaves no room for teaching") written by retired Egremont School teacher Christine Jordan clearly describes the extensive preparation that even the earliest MCAS tests received in Pittsfield. She writes, "Before I retired in 2005, from January on, we prepped for test-taking." She explain that this preparation was done to the exclusion of everything else.
With the arrival of Supt. Katherine Darlington in Pittsfield, test preparation was extended and intensified. Early in her tenure, Pittsfield's middle schools were required to give four practice MCAS tests in addition to the real thing within one school year. Today, in communities throughout the commonwealth, educators have turned into statisticians, "mining" and "farming" data, analyzing that data, and determining how instruction can be tweaked to squeeze out more and more points on the MCAS.
The opt-out movement only addresses part of the problem. While individual students can sit out the tests, they cannot always escape that targeted instruction. Students are still being hurt when the instruction focuses on one test. They may graduate without that stressful testing experience, but they may also graduate with truncated academic skills.
The MCAS has value when it is used to measure skills and knowledge rather than determine what is taught. Years ago, before the advent of curriculum development, teachers would point to the books in their classrooms and identify them as the curricula. Years later, the tests they are forced to use serve the same purpose, driving and limiting the instructional offerings of many schools.
The opt-out movement will need to reach gale force winds to succeed. Bureaucrats who are heavily invested in the current system are not about to be shaken loose without a fight. There are too many careers at stake and too much money at risk. High stakes testing has become a very big and profitable business. A determined and sustained assault must be waged to dislodge these powerful interests that have convinced the public that only high stakes testing can provide accountability.
A long-time teacher in the Pittsfield school system and former chairman of the Taconic English Department, Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.