Published in the Brookline
March 9, 2000
The anti-MCAS movement is growing. Two developments are especially encouraging--the
Brookline School Committee's public anti-MCAS stand, as cautious and ambiguous
as it is, and the statewide student-led boycott. The boycott is a crucial
component of the effort to end high-stakes standardized tests not just
in Massachusetts but across the United States.
Subscribers to MCAS-related email lists receive daily reminders of widespread
opposition to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. It's
great to see parents, students, teachers, and even some administrators
working together to defeat the distortion of public education. It's also
clear that the anti-MCAS sentiment so obvious at the February 8th Lincoln
School panel discussion extends well beyond Brookline. (See www.massparents.org;
subscribe to the statewide list
sponsored by the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education at www.fairtest.org/arn/arn.htm).
At the February panel discussion, the School Committee's Terry Kwan acknowledged
that MCAS is bad for Brookline schools and bad for Brookline students.
To its credit, the Committee opposes the test's high-stakes nature. "Pass
an educationally indefensible test or don't get a high school diploma"
is a nasty policy that demands opposition.
Also hopeful was hearing from Assistant School Superintendant Claire
Jackson, speaking at a Pierce School PTO meeting, that Brookline teachers
are instructed not to alter teaching methods just to boost MCAS scores.
However, it looks like that instruction has not reached every school.
Parents report that some teachers are indeed teaching to the test; in
many cases MCAS has become the de facto point of reference for in-school
curriculum discussions. So it makes me wonder what the policy really is.
The School Committee should clarify in writing that teachers are told
to ignore the test. Superintendent James Walsh should ensure that principals
and teachers hold firm against whatever test pressures they confront.
In the meantime, parents and students who find teachers shifting to rote
memorization or removing creative activities from the curriculum should
complain, loudly, as should teachers who feel pressured to boost scores.
Committee members and Superintendent Walsh should also stop trying to
dampen support for an MCAS boycott. Their position may be understandable
given the state's funding power, but let's not take their anti-boycott
line too seriously. Instead, let's push the Committee to adopt a no-MCAS-in-Brookline
policy. Second best would be a formal no-punishment policy for students
who refuse to take the test and teachers who refuse to give it, with alternative
educational activities for boycotters (as already promised in some other
All signs point to a much bigger boycott next month than last year. Students
are communicating by email and holding meetings across the state. They've
created a group appropriately called SCAM, the Student Coalition for Alternatives
to MCAS. Their website offers thoughtful analysis, an articulate defense
of a boycott, and links to CARE's proposed alternative to MCAS (see www.scam-mcas.org).
SCAM members are now debating what boycotters should do while the exam
is administered. Among the possibilities are attending alternative in-school
activities, leaving school for self-directed or parent-directed learning,
lobbying the legislature, and demonstrating en masse. The student discussion
is mature, thoughtful, and politically aware. And clever, too. Noting
that boycotters will receive the lowest possible score (200, equivalent
to a zero), some Brookline High School students have challenged rival
Newton North to see which school can generate the lowest average MCAS
score. More power to the bottom!
Parents and teachers should support these students. Standing up to unjust,
ill-intentioned, or stupid authority is much more than a teenage rite
of passage. It's more than just a lark, even for those who won't be punished.
It is, for many, the first step in a lifetime of taking politics seriously.
Despite the boycott excitement, it's important to remember that MCAS
distorts education throughout the school year, not just at exam time.
If some teachers even in Brookline respond to mixed messages by dumbing
down their courses, imagine what it's like in districts where improving
MCAS scores is an official mania. Our response should be not just to support
those who refuse to take the test but to prevent educational degradation