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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Will the Brookline School Committee
Escalate MCAS Opposition?

Dennis Fox

December 19, 2002

State education authorities are doing a good job of institutionalizing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. They've added pacifying, divide-the-opposition doodads like endless test-prep and retests for those who fail the high-stakes exam, second-class "certificates of achievement" for graduates denied a diploma, and a subjective jump-though-the-hoops appeals process. Unfortunately, the state's effort to retain MCAS's education-warping core is strengthened by local school committee timidity.

Legislative tinkering around the test's edges remains stalled. The incoming governor favors MCAS as much as the departing one. A federal judge bumped to state court a lawsuit seeking to mandate diplomas for seniors who fail the exam. So far, test opponents who have spent the last few years urging the state to reverse course and working to elect new politicians have little to show for their faith in the system.

Things are a bit more encouraging at the local level. Since education traditionally has been a local responsibility, many school boards have been vocal MCAS opponents. Yet only rarely have actions matched rhetoric.

Brookline's a good example. Our School Committee proudly and loudly condemns MCAS. Members have been heavily lobbied by parents who belong to the local chapter of CARE (Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education; I'm a member). Yet despite plenty of activity, the Committee consistently chooses the safer, less effective route.

The current high-priority issue is whether local districts will issue diplomas this spring to high school students who pass all district requirements but fail the exam. School Committees in Cambridge, Hampshire Regional, and Falmouth have decided to do so, defying state authorities who claim Education Reform gives the state complete diploma authority.

Yet Brookline's School Committee instead passed what came to be known as the Brookline Resolution, which asked the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) to assert that local districts "have the right" to issue diplomas -- but it didn't say they'd actually issue them. This watering down culminated in overwhelming MASC approval -- but only after the wording was diluted further to assert local districts "should have" diploma rights. Whether Brookline will take the next step, as some Committee members repeatedly imply, remains to be seen.

A second example: After BrooklineCARE proposed to survey local teachers to find out how MCAS actually affects our kids' education -- a problem the School Committee refused at first to address -- the Committee finally endorsed the survey when the teachers union and past superintendent adopted it.

This past fall the results were in. The return rate was lower than it could have been, because town principals refused to let teachers fill out the questionnaire at staff meetings. So the answers were hard to interpret. But one thing was clear: teachers who perceived a lot of pressure to boost MCAS scores identified more negative test consequences than teachers who perceived little pressure.

Nineteen percent of teachers perceived MCAS pressure coming from the School Committee itself. When the Committee discussed this, one member wondered how teachers could be so wrong. Others nodded in agreement, exasperated by teachers ignorant of Committee policy. Yet none asked whether teachers reasonably interpreted as pressure the School Committee's regular discussion of test scores.

One more example is the Committee's hands-off approach to the MCAS boycott. A sprinkling of school officials across the country support boycotts of high-stakes tests. A planned teacher boycott in Chicago helped persuade the city to cancel its own test. In Cambridge, authorities send home forms asking parents to indicate if their child will -- or won't -- take the test. But not in Brookline.

Three years ago, the School Committee refused to reign in Brookline High Headmaster Bob Weintraub, who devised punitive rules to deter boycotters. The Committee has never publicized its de facto policy allowing parents to keep their younger children out of the test without penalty. In at least one school (Pierce) the School Council created an information sheet explaining how parents can just say no, but the School Committee itself offers only silence.

Tinkering time has come and gone. Now it's time for the School Committee to follow those who have taken the lead where it counts.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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