Edward Udel: Tests distract from serious educational issues

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DALTON >> A full court press against Bill 340 has begun. Bill 340 would put a halt to high stakes testing in Massachusetts for three years and empower a legislative committee to study the real impact of the testing program. The Massachusetts Alliance for Business has weighed in, arguing that a moratorium would be wrong. In "Test moratorium is the wrong answer" (Eagle op-ed, July 26), the organization's executive director, Linda Noonan, urges PARCC testing. Interestingly, her argument leads me to the opposite conclusion. A moratorium is crucial!

She begins with an admission of concern. "While the business community we represent shares concerns about 'fill in the dot testing' taking up too much time in schools, the proposed moratorium on assessment is the wrong solution." Indeed, the tests are time consuming but the real problem is the extraordinary consumption of time and resources aimed solely and directly at preparing children for the test.

For schools that struggle to maintain or reach Level 1, 2 or 3 (almost all of them) or those desperately attempting to avoid Level 4, the test is now the curriculum. The high stakes testing process has not produced better instruction, only more and more practice at the expense of other important elements of the curriculum. No wonder students are struggling with other assessments such as college placement exams!

PARCC is a setback

Ms. Noonan argues that Massachusetts' public schools must do a better job of preparing students for college and careers. That is precisely why a moratorium is needed. No one is satisfied when students score poorly on other assessments. But her plan to require the PARCC exam will not only fail to move the needle but will actually set us back even more.

Singular focus on one test, any test, requiring one set of approaches to writing prompts to the exclusion of others prevent our children from developing the flexibility and comprehensive skills required to respond to other types of tests. Our singular focus on one assessment has created huge gaps in student preparation.

Ms. Noonan argues that MCAS is too easy and that the PARCC is a more demanding test that will "raise the level of learning." We heard the same exact claims when MCAS was introduced in 1993 as the most challenging high stakes test in the nation, one that would measure higher order thinking and writing skills. How can we be certain that an untested test will produce a higher level of learning?

If the MCAS test, now tethered to schools' report cards and teachers' evaluations, hasn't raised the level of learning, what assurance do we have that underperforming students will commit themselves to a higher level of scholarship? When we began to use one test score to grade schools and teachers, the Pavlovian response from many schools was to stop teaching and start test prepping, a predictable and unavoidable response that has boosted MCAS scores but ultimately deprived students of comprehensive, creative and engaging instruction.

I remain unconvinced that one test, any test, no matter how well conceived, no matter how challenging, can address the real issues. Ms. Noonan writes, "This is particularly challenging in our smaller cities where poverty and language barriers keep students farther away from attaining the degree they will need to receive family sustaining employment." I would add that large cities are dealing with the same problems on a larger scale, and many smaller suburban communities have also suffered under the weight of state mandates. I respectfully ask Noonan to explain how another high stakes test will mitigate the effects of poverty and language barriers.

Students must be willing to learn and many are not. Students must be prepared for school and many are not. Students must be willing to read and many do not. No test can change the inconvenient fact that success in the classroom is influenced by many factors outside the school. The expectation that talented and devoted teachers can overcome any obstacle is bunk.

Tethering student performance exclusively to schools and teachers won't accomplish the job. We must make fundamental changes in our society, acknowledge and address the influence of poverty and ignorance, and provide accessible, stimulating and early intervention for at-risk children or we will gain no ground.

Other factors in play

Ms. Noonan, if it will give you comfort, then untether the tests from their high stakes moorings and measure away. Determine if you must where there are large pockets of underperforming students. I submit that socio-economic factors are undeniable and directly reflected in test results. I urge you to read reports from the American Statistical Association that warn about the danger of using test scores as indicators of school quality or teaching performance.

There are simply too many factors other than teaching that affect academic achievement. We ignore those factors at our peril. Conservative New York times columnist David Brooks has argued that you can predict academic performance even before children enter school based on the quality of their lives during their pre-school years.

No test can fix this, but our singular preoccupation with testing and measurement prevents us from seriously addressing these challenges. A test moratorium is the right answer!

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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