Our Opinion: Testing debate obscures issues facing education

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State education officials this month will choose between the MCAS and PARCC standardized exams — or perhaps a hybrid — but it won't end the debate over school testing. Or get to the root of what ails our educational system.

The late stages of this debate come in the welcome context of last month's acknowledgement by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that testing mania had gone too far, to the detriment of teachers, students and the educational process in general. This is quite the mea culpa on the part of the Obama administration, which stoked the testing furnace with programs like the Race for the Top initiative, which by rewarding top-performing (read, wealthy) schools and districts, reduced testing to a heavily biased game show.

In Massachusetts, we have an MCAS exam that unduly dominates schools in terms of preparation and testing. Replace it with PARCC and you have a new test with the same problems. Not much of a choice, even without considering the "door number three" that Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, ran up the flagpole last month in the form of his suggested MCAS-PARCC hybrid.

The much-maligned state MCAS is a product of the 1993 Education Reform Act in the state, which did pay real dividends. But while Massachusetts students test well compared to peers in other states, the amount of remedial work colleges must engage in so entering high school graduates don't fail immediately reveals how far short MCAS has fallen of its goals. As MCAS is a state program, its failings can at least be addressed theoretically on a state level.

The consortium behind PARCC argues that it is the next evolutionary step from MCAS, but it is linked into the rigid and unpopular federal Common Core standards. Advocates argue that there is flexibility within PARCC, but Massachusetts teachers have no incentive to teach what won't be on the test. States are pulling away from PARCC, and there is no clearer acknowledgment that the air is coming out of PARCC in the state than the MCAS-PARCC hybrid proposed by Mr. Chester, who heads the government board developing PARCC.

No matter what alphabet soup of capital letters denotes a test the issues will be basically the same. Too much time and resources will be devoted to tests, while the largely unfunded mandates strain financially strapped schools. The stakes are disproportionately high, especially when test results do a poorer job of measuring student performance than they do of providing a case to leverage grants.

Districts end up testing what they pay for, as students in financially well-off schools will test better. Students who come to school hungry, are not encouraged to learn by parents, or who speak a second language are at an incredible disadvantage that has nothing to do with intelligence. That disadvantages grows throughout their academic careers.

On Monday, a bipartisan commission of lawmakers and educators recommended the most ambitious K-12 public spending program seen in the state since 1993. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be devoted to, in part, instituting longer school days and smaller class sizes, help districts burdened with high levels of poverty, and expand early education. The argument will be that the state can't afford to do this but evidence indicates it can't afford not to.

Advocates for MCAS and PARCC are sincere and want the best for the state's children, but if the fundamental problems that plague public education are not addressed than the debate over tests is just a distraction. Mr. Chester's hybrid, or more accurately Frankenstein monster, may get jolted into life and sent lurching into schools, but it will be just a different burden that indicates how we are falling short educationally without telling us how to get better.



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