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Brookline Newcomer

Kill MCAS--before it's too late

Published in the Brookline TAB

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 them.

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

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 test.

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