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Brookline Newcomer

Urban-suburban MCAS opposition 

Published in Brookline TAB,
Somerville Journal, & other CNC papers

June 29, 2000


Here in the suburbs, where MCAS-induced curriculum deterioration damages good schools, opposition to state-mandated high-stakes testing makes obvious sense. In urban areas, however, where schools lack basic resources despite the past decade's education reforms, opposing the punitive Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is not enough. The time has come to strengthen the emerging urban-suburban anti-MCAS alliance and rebut with action the false charge that test opponents are simply elitists unconcerned about urban children in general and poor and nonwhite children in particular.

Given continued inequities in school funding, it's clear that MCAS's primary goal is not educational but political: to persuade the public that nothing more need be done to improve urban schools. The use of MCAS to compare schools and school districts and to penalize students and teachers is unrelated to student learning or to honest assessment. Testing under these circumstances is a delusion and a diversion, not a solution.

In response to this mean-spirited agenda, MCAS opponents should push not just to end the test but to dramatically improve funding for school districts whose resources remain far below what's available in the suburbs.

Even more than that: we need to emphasize the link between educational disparity and broader social injustices. We should not let the state get away with the dishonest claim, for example, that the solution for districts devastated by poverty and racism is to test students and even teachers rather than end fundamental social inequities. In next November's referendum election, we should not let demands for reduced taxes inflict further damage on urban schools and urban communities.

Stopping MCAS remains crucial. But most suburbanites know it's not acceptable to save our own schools without revitalizing urban education, and we know that urban education can't be fixed without reducing the rising income and housing gaps. It's a good bet that MCAS's suburban opponents are more willing to help pay for fundamental improvements in inner city schools than are the many MCAS proponents who send their own children to private MCAS-free schools. It may be cheaper to flunk students than to educate them effectively, but that's not acceptable to the anti-MCAS movement.

Our urban parent, teacher, and student counterparts know that MCAS unfairly penalizes students for the failures of their society. Emphasizing that message, the group Teen Empowerment recently presented Governor Cellucci with 850 student letters opposing MCAS, along with a demand that he take the test himself. Similar efforts will gain momentum as MCAS's no-graduation threat looms closer.

True, some urbanites hope that MCAS will overcome decades of deterioration and whip their schools into shape. A bad test is better than no test, in this view, a heavy-handed tool better than continued neglect.

I wish it were so. But among MCAS's many shortcomings is that scoring high on the test is poor preparation for scoring high in life. More to the point, scoring low is all too common in far too many schools.

It's easy from the suburbs to preach MCAS's faults. We insist that it's not only suburban students who should learn how to think in depth about serious issues. Quality education is at least as important in the cities, where an MCAS-directed curriculum will do little more than train students for low-wage service jobs when it doesn't force them out of school entirely. Trivial memorization skills and superficial knowledge of isolated facts won't overcome the family income and education disparities that largely explain the gap between urban and suburban school districts. Without ending poverty and despair, MCAS can do little except further punish those already punished enough.

But to be credible our claim needs to be backed up by more focused efforts to reduce those income and resource gaps while supporting existing efforts by urban residents to improve their schools and their communities.

MCAS may die, or at least be suspended, if it becomes politically unfeasible to withhold diplomas from thousands of students. That would be a good thing. But it won't fix overloaded and overpunished schools across the state. Poor education remains a symptom. The broad anti-MCAS alliance must confront the cause.

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