Kill MCAS--before it's too
Published in the Brookline
January 20, 2000
The moderator of last week's American Jewish Congress panel discussion
on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System pinned his anti-MCAS
hopes on electing a new governor in 2002. Fortunately, three of the panelists
advocated a more direct tactic, less reliant on the whims of future politicians:
joining the growing MCAS boycott. Let's kill MCAS before it's too late.
Refusing to participate in MCAS should become a topic at the February
8th panel discussion sponsored by Brookline's Parent-Teacher Organizations,
called "Straight Talk About MCAS: How Does High Stakes Testing Affect
Brookline Students?" Because MCAS will harm our children, the School Committee
itself should boycott the exam, or at least support parents, students,
teachers, and administrators who refuse to take part. If the School Committee
doesn't adopt such a policy, the PTOs should.
Much of the MCAS criticism comes from teachers and parents in towns and
cities much poorer than Brookline. That's important, because if MCAS really
could improve education by overcoming poverty and crime and racism, it
might be worth supporting even if education at the upper reaches of the
income distribution suffered a bit.
But the strong opposition to MCAS by the people it presumably was designed
to help makes it easier for those of us in more privileged locations to
insist that we don't want it either. Opposing MCAS means neither trying
to preserve advantages for privileged kids nor abandoning kids in oppressive
circumstances. It means instead trying to provide a meaningful education
for all our children, not caving in to the misdirected demands of politicians
and bureaucrats who have decided it's cheaper to flunk kids than to educate
On those ubiquitous rankings of district MCAS scores, Brookline does
just fine. We don't have to worry that huge numbers of town students will
fail, because Brookline disproportionately has the main thing kids need
to succeed--parents with money. So most Brookline kids would pass the
test even if their teachers and their schools were just average.
Yet, as noted last year in the Boston Globe, Brookline kids do even better
than high socioeconomic status would predict. That's exactly why so many
of us with young children live in a town we really can't afford. Our teachers
are better than average, and our students do better than expected. They
not only score well on poorly designed standardized tests, they actually
learn how to think critically about subjects in depth.
MCAS just mucks up the works.
At a fall PTO meeting at my daughter's school, no one endorsed MCAS.
The best that was said for it was that the test might help identify some
sporadic weaknesses. The downside far outweighed any possible benefit.
Teachers explained how attempting to improve test scores would require
significant changes in course content. Both teachers and parents opposed
dumbing down a curriculum that has served us so well simply to improve
scores on a test whose flaws have been amply described in this newspaper
and elsewhere (see http://massparents.org).
At that meeting I said I was pleased Brookline's MCAS scores had not
shot up from 1998 to 1999. If they had, I would have wondered what was
sacrificed to make room for test prepping. My comment paralleled one made
at last week's panel discussion by Alfie Kohn, who warned the audience
to be suspicious of any MCAS gains. Such increases, he argued, were possible
only by reducing a school's focus on critical thinking and in-depth learning.
Predictably, MCAS hysteria is getting even worse. Now you can sign your
kids up for a $600 Kaplan MCAS preparation course, or get them to read
helpful Globe supplements covering the test's high points, or force them
to watch MCAS tutorials on cable TV. They should have plenty of time for
these activities once the schools eliminate from the curriculum everything
the test ignores.
Let's stop this nonsense. MCAS is bad for kids in poorly performing schools,
which mostly need more money and more creativity. And it's bad for kids
in high-performing schools, which mostly need just to be left alone.
Promises from the School Committee to improve test scores are the last
thing we need. Instead, let's let our teachers teach without fear of reprisal
when they refuse to water down the curriculum. Let's boycott MCAS, as
a town, together. And let's tell our kids why. That would offer a lesson
far more important than anything they might get from cramming for the