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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Latest MCAS Report No Surprise

Dennis Fox

August 15, 2002

A new pro-MCAS report claims suburban schools are falling down on the high-stakes-testing job. The Boston Globe quotes David Tuerck, head of the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research:

"Clearly they could do better; more specifically, they could try harder."

Despite the dig, when Brookline educators return to the classroom next month, we should insist they ignore the slanted research.

Scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System remain much higher in wealthier districts than in poorer ones. This fact is neither new nor surprising. True, Education Reform was supposed to reduce disparities created by the inability of most districts to match the money ritzier towns spend on education and the many other advantages wealthy parents provide.

But no one who's paying attention thinks the state's minimal effort will significantly cut the outcomes gap so long as our society allows family income and resources to vary so drastically.

Still, despite high MCAS scores and other evidence of good schools, BHI says suburban students should test even higher. When relevant factors affecting school performance are considered -- property values, percentage of single-mother families, percentage of children receiving subsidized lunches -- it turns out wealthier towns score lower than expected.

On the 4th grade MCAS in 2001, for example, Brookline scored 40th of the state's 266 districts in placing students in the top two test categories. Not bad. Yet those students scored much lower on the BHI model -- 113th -- when taking into account our privileged demographics. Similarly, our 8th grade students dropped from 24th to 151st, 10th grade from 34th to 101st.

On the other hand, many lower-scoring urban districts received higher scores than the model predicted. Chelsea's 10th graders, for example, scored 210th in the state on the test, but #1 on the BHI scale.

While urban authorities are pleased with evidence they're doing a better-than-expected job, suburban reaction is more mixed. Wellesley's school superintendent told the Globe what should be obvious:

"Constant improvement ... isn't centered around MCAS."

Brookline reaction is no doubt similar. Our School Committee and superintendent consistently claim (despite many reports to the contrary) that we don't teach to the test -- a position they can maintain as long as most students pass.

There's danger in resting on our privileged laurels, however. Affluent districts can withstand pressure to completely corrupt school curriculums just to boost scores. But doing so magnifies the gap between our children and their urban and rural peers whose schools have become little more than test-prep centers.

The solution clearly isn't to escalate MCAS preparation to make our own scores more demographically appropriate. Instead, we should escalate MCAS boycotts and other forms of resistance, not just in towns like Brookline but in Chelsea and Boston and everywhere else authorities cave in to state demands. No one should settle for a tracking system that teaches only low-level skills to some and expects high-level thinking from others.

The pro-MCAS Globe's story omitted many BHI report details, including its incessant push for school choice and vouchers, its simplistic dismissal of the link between money and outcomes, its ode to competition between schools and within classrooms, and its many conclusions that sloppily move from correlation to causation.

Here's my favorite part, refreshingly and ominously honest:

"The very fact that schools and students are focused on avoiding a Warning label gives weight to the misgivings expressed by MCAS test opponents: By putting so much emphasis on the MCAS test, schools are neglecting learning of the kind that is not and cannot be measured by that test."

Elsewhere it adds:

"To improve MCAS test results, the job of the teacher is not to encourage discussion, criticism and the general-give-and-take that small classes encourage. Rather the job of the teacher is to drill the students on methods for providing the right answers to test questions."

Rather than assess the value of different kinds of learning, though, the report says its task is only to

"help policy makers fashion an education policy that will improve MCAS test scores, if that is their goal. We leave it to others to debate the worthiness of that goal."

As MCAS havoc escalates, so should the debate.


More on opposition to MCAS

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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