Edward Udel: Schools must rise up against false god Deceptus

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DALTON >> By removing some of the destructive elements of No Child Left Behind and restoring a semblance of local control, the federal government has shown remarkable bipartisan wisdom. It has recognized the destructive impact of high stakes testing that transforms schools into test preparation centers, stressing out many young children, narrowing and fractionalizing curriculum, and ushering in the opt-out movement now sweeping across the nation.

Massachusetts, however, remains in denial, uncompromisingly loyal to the patron god of imaginary progress, Deceptus, who rules from his lofty position on Mount Testmore.

The commonwealth's deciders embrace the argument that one well-designed test (soon to be a hybrid of MCAS and PARCC) will advance public education, a position unsupported by experience, grounded in wishful thinking and strongly opposed by the three voting members of the state board of education that represent students, parents and teachers. The other eight board members, including Secretary Jim Peyser and Commissioner Mitchell Chester, are apparently unconcerned that during a typical school day, hours are consumed directly preparing students for one test. They cling to the fabrication that Massachusetts schools spend an average of only two days each year in preparation for the big test.

Perhaps a visual will help to make my point. Imagine a solid red circle 10 inches in diameter. Place a solid green two-inch square directly in the middle of that circle. That solid green square represents the knowledge and skills measured by the MCAS.

Using a series of lessons that are often completely scripted, students practice acquiring the skills and knowledge located within the boundaries of that green square. The red segments still visible within the circle represent what could and should still be taught. However, since the test does not apply to the red, it is all but ignored.

Now imagine that two-inch square of green represents a particular approach to teaching and that the red represents other approaches. The scripted lessons, for example, that address the four yearly open-ended MCAS questions micro-teach step by step instructions showing students how to precisely structure their responses. Students practice these approaches under the watchful supervision of teachers whose sole concern must now be the scores students achieve on this one exam.

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I have seen these scripted lessons. They do not teach students how to think or how to creatively respond to prompts. Rather, they teach step-by-step memorized formulaic approaches that are exclusively geared to a single test.

MCAS or PARCC scores climb dramatically as a result of focused practice, but we graduate a much weaker product. When 37 percent of Massachusetts' college preparatory high school graduates require remedial courses to matriculate in college, how can we argue that high stakes testing is a difference-maker? When 85 percent of Berkshire Community College's freshmen require remedial courses to matriculate, how can we be certain that the problem is the MCAS test rather than our total reliance upon high stakes testing and data driven instruction. Replace the MCAS with the PARCC and you still have precisely the same problem. Some of the very people who now insist that MCAS be replaced by a "tougher" test have praised its quality ad nauseam in the past.

High stakes tests do not measure what students know after they participate in a comprehensive program of study. Rather, they have become measurements of how much and how well students have practiced and prepared directly for the test, for that green two inch square. Now that teachers' performance evaluations are impacted by their students' high stakes test scores, it will be even more difficult to break free from this restrictive instructional pattern and return joy and creativity to our classrooms.

The quest for higher scores has become a seriously destructive game. Some charter schools take extreme steps to improve their scores by actually exporting their unmotivated students to neighboring schools prior to the testing period. The testing process is plagued by an appalling absence of authenticity and honesty. Success is artificially engineered and false conclusions are convincingly but inaccurately attached to that success.

It is time for the teachers of Massachusetts to rise up and reclaim their right to teach with integrity, to instruct joyfully, creatively and comprehensively. I hope that they will begin a serious dialogue within the profession and emerge from their silence with a strong and unwavering determination to turn the tide.

Deceptus, patron god of imaginary progress, is no match for the power of truth.

Edward Udel was a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield Public School System and former chairman of the Taconic High School English Dept.


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