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Brookline Newcomer

Anti-MCAS momentum

Published in the Brookline TAB

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 districts).

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 for everyone.


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