Wednesday, July 24, 2024

As a recently retired 35-year Cambridge Public Schools educator, parent and grandparent, I’ve observed and experienced nonstop ineffective and destructive fallout from the high-stakes testing “educating” of young people, their families and caretakers.

From the introduction of MCAS in 1998 by then-Gov. Paul Cellucci, those of us on the front lines could see the damage being done to all students: children with learning differences, children whose cultural and/or social-economic identities did not match those of the test creators, children who were already “left behind” through no fault of their own. Colleagues were not fooled by “No Child Left Behind”; we understood that testing was not the way to educate students “left behind,” and were not being provided with what students, families and educators need to learn. Equally wrong, children scoring as proficient or advanced would “succeed” and benefit from this social sorting, thus learning – or having reinforced – a more insidious lesson about themselves in schools and society in general. I watched as my own son, always excited by learning and already frustrated by such fill-in-the-box practice and testing, literally put his head down and boycotted the first versions of  MCAS testing in our nearby hometown. And what did he learn from that experience? Education based on institutional testing was not to be trusted.

I could not let this happen to anyone else’s child, and vowed to continue to help students and families figure out how to navigate similar rough waters.

Over the decades, the movement to boycott and eliminate high-stakes testing waned, but it never disappeared. High-stakes testing persists too. What does this look like in the 2020s? Educators continue to meet, hour after hour, examining “data” that represents students not yet or no longer in our classrooms. At best this information contains a snapshot of a person on a particular day at a particular hour, and not other capabilities of that child that could help them work through a problem and achieve a task. Over the decades, hours of data-driven meetings always resulted in this nagging question: Are we educating children, or programming machines? Where is the child in this process? After expressing professional and personal frustration at these meetings, I would withdraw, put my own head down, and plan follow-up assignments and approaches that did address many of the skills, content and approaches that confused or eluded students. MCAS results did not inform me; daily assignments and patterns of responses and approaches did, and ongoing conferencing.

Closing the gap and meeting the needs of all students is always our purpose and goal. Constructing and implementing test-driven curriculum is not effective, and will perpetuate the inequities that persist in education and in society. As has already been stated, alternative assessments, already in place in many communities and states, represent more accurately the strengths of a person.

Here are three steps the Cambridge School Committee can take:

  • Make public the number of students who don’t pass the 10th-grade MCAS, disaggregated by race, class, gender, special needs and English-language learners.
  • Tell parents of elementary students of their right to “opt out” of MCAS testing.
  • Conduct forums of  educators, parents and students to determine how MCAS affects their experience of the schools.

Leslie Kramer, Medford