Standardized testing was chosen as a measure of progress by laws such as No Child Left Behind. (Photo: Ryan McGilchrist)

Received Oct. 17, 2017: As families of special education students receive MCAS 2.0 reports this week, many will feel a mixture of anxiety and relief: Anxiety about their children’s educational vulnerability, and relief to know that the law protects their right to learn.

After reading the recent essay on MCAS in Cambridge Day (“Why We Oppose MCAS 2.0,” Oct. 14, 2017), we feel it is imperative to provide a different perspective.

What is MCAS 2.0 – and why does it matter

The recent history of MCAS 2.0 was summarized in the previous editorial, but we’d like to illuminate its broader context, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and No Child Left Behind – now reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

When NCLB passed, it was denounced by some as bringing corporate values into public education. Yet at the time, advocates for African American students and students with disabilities stood firmly behind it.

The parents and advocates who fought for it did so because they knew that simply allowing students to attend public schools is not enough – the law must protect their right to actually learn. NCLB mandated that states be accountable for the learning of their students; and standardized testing was chosen as one measure of their progress.

In a data-valuing community such as Cambridge, it should be obvious that test scores provide useful data. While grades, portfolios and teacher reports provide insight into how the student learns, MCAS can provide an important measure of how an individual student’s learning progresses from year to year.

At the level of schools and districts, the data can expose disparities in the academic performance of different groups of students. Communities can use these data to prioritize funding for schools where students seem especially to be struggling. Education researchers use these data to evaluate the effectiveness of different educational strategies. Outside of the education field, test scores can measure the impact of public investments such as food programs for poor families, affordable high-quality early childhood education and access to quality after-school programming.

Standardized test scores have also been used to show the positive impact of cultural proficiency and disability awareness training for educators. It would be naive to suggest that unconscious bias plays no role in education, and research confirms that the cultural proficiency of teachers has a direct impact on student learning.

NCLB goes beyond the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which says students with disabilities have a right to attend school. And it gives teeth to the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act by saying we can’t just assume students are doing fine – we need evidence. In the words of pioneering disability rights advocate Peter Wright, “No Child Left Behind is an excellent sword that we can use to open doors for the children we represent.”

Don’t we have enough information about student learning without using standardized tests?

No. The fact that students are promoted from grade to grade without passing the MCAS suggests that classroom-based tests and assignments don’t tell the whole story. Our members report that too often, their children are getting grades that are inflated by well-intentioned teachers who want to reward students for trying. While it may seem like kindness, “A for effort” won’t get a student through college.

Testing cuts through the good intentions and lowered expectations to provide a more objective view of whether a student is making progress. MCAS reports have undergone helpful redesign in the past two years and are becoming easier for parents to read, understand and use in discussions with the school. In some cases, the testing might not be an accurate reflection of the student’s learning – in which case, more accommodations may need to be put in place. In most cases, the test results line up with our observations of where our students struggle and where they’re more successful.

We assume teachers want our children to learn, but we know that teaching our kids can be really difficult. Some of our kids become aggressive when flooded by shame during a challenging task, and it can be tempting to lower expectations in hopes of reducing the stress. Many of their accommodations are inconvenient, and it takes time to give them the attention they need to be successful. In some cases, our students seem hopelessly behind, and teachers may feel it’s unkind to document the extent to which they are failing.

But our view is that we can’t help a student to improve if we don’t know how they’re really doing. And the good news is, thanks to NCLB, we, as parents, can partner with schools. We’re in this work together. Far from sowing the seeds of mistrust, NCLB and standardized testing provide a starting point for talking honestly about how students are doing, and from this honesty springs the possibility of success.

Is standardized testing stressful for students?

For some students, definitely. There’s no denying that school is incredibly stressful for many and testing is exhausting for some, even on a good day. Breakdowns around testing are a sign that support and intervention are necessary. Behavioral support, stress reduction programs, supportive counseling, extended time and modifying the test environment are all ways to accommodate the needs of students with anxiety. When the adults present testing as similar to an annual check-up – not the most fun, but not really a big deal – most students will relax and get through it.

Will they need special educators to proctor their exams? Sometimes. Will it take them more time? Often, yes. But “slow and steady wins the race.” Many of our students will need more time to finish an exam or even to finish high school, but we believe the time is a good investment.

Is MCAS 2.0 perfect?

Obviously not, but we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The previous essay’s authors point to New Hampshire as pioneering a standardized assessment process that deemphasizes multiple-choice tests. We are curious about new models and are not wedded to any one test or measure. If invited, we will gladly sit at the table when changes are considered.

A comparison could be made to the national health care debate. Where some might argue the system should be scrapped because it’s not perfect, we believe the results would be devastating. Repeal and replace is not an option for our students.

There is one point in the anti-MCAS editorial with which we do agree. The authors state, “As you try to make sense of the score report coming in the mail, please remember that these tests … are a political choice.” We agree, this issue is political.

Standardized testing within a system of accountability gives political power to those who need it the most: educationally vulnerable students.


Karen Dobak is co-chairwoman of the Cambridge Special Education Parent Advisory Council; Kevin Fanning is a Cambridge Public Schools Parent; Mark Gardner is a parent and past co-chairman of SEPAC; Dian Holder is a parent and officer with the organization; Maureen Manning is a parent and past co-chairwoman of the organization; Zuleka Queen-Postell is a parent and district staff member; Rosalie Rippey is a parent and district staff member; Evan Wilcox is a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School; Trudy Wilcox is a district parent.

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