MCAS boycotters one,
School Committee less than zero
Published in the Brookline
April 27, 2000
The April 12th MCAS boycott was a blast. Two dozen persistent sophomores
stood their ground outside Brookline High School, resisting school authorities
who initially tried to bully them into taking the composition test. Holding
signs criticizing high-stakes assessment, the students articulately fielded
questions from the media. Although they skipped the test, in the days
prior to the boycott they learned a lot about interacting with adult authority
figures. Their most important lesson was basic: stick to principles.
The Brookline School Committee should learn the same lesson.
The Committee had known for months of the impending boycott. School authorities
even hinted that liberal Brookline would never punish students for acts
of conscience, especially with such widespread opposition to MCAS's damaging
effects. Yet the Committee, refusing to announce a formal no-reprisal
rule like its Cambridge peers, ducked the issue by putting school principals
on the undeserved hot seat instead. The effort to have it both ways contrasted
sharply with the students' clear moral position.
At the School Committee meeting the week before MCAS, BHS headmaster
Bob Weintraub announced his new policy: asking teachers to reduce grades
in whatever course was relevant to a skipped test (a penalty proposed
by Mass Insight, the statewide pro-MCAS business group). Beset by conflicting
pressures, Weintraub offered several justifications for his punitive stance.
His most baffling rationale was that a grade reduction would teach students
that civil disobedience has serious consequences. But punishing boycotters
to educate them about civil disobedience is a bit silly when there's no
legally required penalty other than failing the test, and when it's Weintraub
himself who chooses whether or not to punish.
Weintraub's most misdirected rationale was that forcing students to take
the test would teach them responsibility. I don't understand this one
either. Both Weintraub and Superintendent Jim Walsh emphasized they don't
want Brookline's MCAS scores to "suffer." But just about everyone in town
who's publicly expressed an opinion seems to agree that the test is at
best unnecessary and at worst harmful. So why should we care how Brookline
scores? The emphasis on Brookline's image seemed out of place in the midst
of a debate over moral principles.
Walsh and Weintraub tried to divert boycotters into tamer avenues like
petitioning and lobbying. They seemed ignorant of the fact that some boycotters,
as well as many other anti-MCAS folks here in Brookline and across the
state, have been petitioning and lobbying for some time without success.
It's only direct action--refusing to participate in a ludicrous, unjust,
education-destroying, exercise--that's finally gotten the attention of
the media and the state. Direct action is both morally justified and historically
Some School Committee members, visibly concerned about Weintraub's penalty,
urged him to reconsider. Our elected officials should have gone much further,
much sooner. They shouldn't have let the headmaster--by all accounts a
caring and effective educator--twist slowly in the wind while keeping
their own heads buried in the sand. (It's also time they stop ignoring
the abundant evidence that too many Brookline teachers are already dumbing
down their classes, putting the lie to the Committee's continued insistence
that Brookline teachers don't teach to the test.)
After days of persuasion, pressure, and publicity, Weintraub finally
reached an imperfect but potentially useful compromise with the students.
Boycotters can void their penalty by writing an extra research paper on
the topic "I am refusing to take MCAS because...." That's a good assignment,
but it still leaves an inappropriate academic penalty for students who
don't do it. Making matters worse, if Weintraub's request to teachers
to lower grades is truly a request rather than an order, the penalty could
be applied inconsistently if teachers tell Weintraub to keep his hands
off their gradebooks.
The statewide boycott will likely gain strength by the mid-May test period,
boosted by CARE's petition drive, increased student organizing, and a
State House rally (May 15th from 3:30 to 6:00). More parents may refuse
to expose their younger children to the stressful test. The time has come
to escalate direct resistance to this destructive exam.
And maybe the School Committee will finally clean up the mess it helped