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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Leaving Children Behind Locally

Dennis Fox

February 26 , 2004

All but three Brookline public schools have failed to meet standards established by the 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Every town school will probably flunk in the next few years. Fortunately, it's the federal standards and state MCAS test that are inadequate, not Brookline's schools. Unfortunately, local officials are more inclined to adapt than fight.

Two hundred people attended a forum two weeks ago organized by BrooklineCARE, which has spent four years opposing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. By denying diplomas to students who fail the state's vindictive test even if they meet all district requirements, MCAS penalizes kids in schools with inadequate resources. MCAS requires annual tests beginning in third grade, replacing age-appropriate education with narrow test-preparation more suitable to low-level tasks than critical intellectual development. MCAS makes teachers, principals, students, and parents crazy with anxiety.

And MCAS does nothing to erase the community income and resource gaps that ensure Massachusetts schools will remain unequal.

The CARE forum focused on the new federal law, which proponents dishonestly call the No Child Left Behind Act. MCAS is bad; NCLB/ESEA makes it worse. Although each state determines for itself which test to use to cripple public education, ESEA ensures that every state will eventually conclude its schools are so bad they must be either taken over or privatized.

Despite the threatened linkage between ESEA rules and federal funding, resistance is growing, even within Republican-dominated legislatures in places like Virginia and Utah. In liberal Massachusetts, however, legislators mostly stick to generalities or tinker around the margins. Brookline's School Committee claims anti-MCAS and anti-ESEA leadership, but its rhetoric -- calling ESEA's accountability system "disastrous" -- is bolder than its policy.

At the forum, Jennifer Fischer-Mueller, Brookline's Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning, explained ESEA gobbledygook that determines if a school makes "adequate yearly progress" toward the impossible goal of 100 percent student proficiency by the year 2014. If even one of a school's subgroups (limited English, disabled, poverty, racial and ethnic categories) fails or has fewer than 95 percent of its students take the test, the whole school fails. Two failures in a row -- even by a different subgroup the second year -- trigger consequences ranging from letting students transfer to other schools (most of which will also soon "fail") to firing teachers to replacing local school officials with state bureaucrats.

School Committee member Kevin Lang offered a brief statistics lesson explaining why almost every school, divided into small repeatedly tested subgroups, will inevitably fall short. For example, state officials inflate the importance of expectable random variations, unjustly rewarding and punishing schools for temporary statistical flukes beyond their control.

Despite the on-target criticism, local policymakers repeat their MCAS mistakes. Along with annual MCAS denunciations, the School Committee has done little more than ask state legislators to reverse course. Wanting to have it both ways, the committee ignores teachers who dumb down education just to raise scores on a test most committee members themselves say is educationally destructive.

The committee also helped dampen the statewide movement to boycott MCAS, though members did finally acknowledge (quietly) that any Brookline parent can keep a child from taking the test merely by notifying the school principal. Under this policy, my daughter skipped MCAS in third and fourth grade, hassle-free.

Ominously, though, committee member Lang mentioned at the ESEA forum that Brookline "won't make the mistake again of not making sure 95 percent in each subgroup take MCAS." I asked Lang if he was announcing a change in School Committee test-taking policy. He didn't answer me.

Afterwards, I asked Sue Senator -- a BrooklineCARE founding member who's now on School Committee -- if town principals will be expected to pressure objecting parents to force their kids to take MCAS this spring. She said the committee hasn't yet addressed this, but should.

My guess is the School Committee majority will avoid an unambiguous response. The state legislature remains a lost cause. Federal honchos like our own senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, who helped George Bush pass ESEA despite its inherent problems, still don't admit they were wrong. Only parents, students, and teachers can lead the way from capitulation to resistance.

More on high-stakes testing

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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