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Brookline Newcomer 

MCAS boycotters one,
School Committee less than zero

Published in the Brookline TAB

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 effective.

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 create.

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