Sunday, June 16, 2024

As a retired bilingual teacher of English as a second language and administrator in Boston Public Schools, I experienced firsthand how the MCAS test as a graduation requirement was particularly punitive to English-language learners and did not accurately assess their skills and academic needs. Most of these students were coming from families whose parents had rarely graduated high school themselves. The students were desperately trying to achieve what their parents had not had the opportunity to attain. Much to their disappointment, the MCAS closed the door on many of them.

ELL teachers are well aware of the research that says it takes three to five years to learn everyday English and five to seven years to learn academic English. Yet our students are required to take English and Science MCAS if they have been in the country for only one year. They are required to take Math MCAS if they have been in the country for one day! Can anyone imagine taking a standardized test that determines whether you graduate in Portuguese or Chinese? Students know and so do their teachers that the testing treats them unfairly.

According to 2019 state data, 64.6 percent of English-language learners statewide graduated. In 2022, graduates were 73.1 percent. It is interesting to note that so many more students graduated when, because of the pandemic, MCAS was not given for three years. The students passed all of their courses, graduated and were able to go on with their lives. Because I believe teachers can assess their students better than tests do, it makes me question the validity of the MCAS. The city should publish the number of students who don’t graduate because of MCAS failure. In addition, it should break the numbers down according to race: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, as well as English-language learners and students with disabilities.

ELL students want to learn how to have successful lives here. They come from culturally rich countries where values and norms are different from those in their new country. They want to learn so much more than the English language. They want to understand and adapt to our values, habits and lifestyles. Building on their backgrounds and experiences, a good teacher relates all of this to classroom instruction. This is where a teacher’s relationship with the students comes into play. In our classes, we used group work, projects, experiential learning, etc. Students thrived on this instruction and felt like their participation was recognized and appreciated. MCAS put a stop to all of this. We were forced to eliminate these kinds of activities in favor of test-prep classes, classes that were prescriptive and regimented. Students’ humanity was negated. No surprise, their enthusiasm for school plummeted. Students who were previously content and came to school regularly were now missing classes. A standardized test merely looked for standardized outcomes. ELL students did not fit into this rubric.

Did you know that ELL students get tested for a month in January with the Access test, an intense reading, writing, listening and speaking assessment, and in March with the English-language arts MCAS and then again in May with the math MCAS?

The transition itself, going from everyday classroom routines to test-prep classes, was disruptive and confusing for ELL students. New to this country, our students were bombarded constantly with unfamiliar challenges. Steady routines helped them adjust to their new environment. They created a familiar space where students were comfortable, knew what to expect and were ready to learn. So the continual switch from these daily routines to the standardized testing was particularly damaging.

MCAS was a slap in the face to creative teachers. It said that a standardized test could measure our students’ knowledge better than we could. The message was that we were not good enough to teach students we were in the classroom with them every day. We knew all about their history, families and school activities. We knew what made them happy, angry and eager to learn. This kind of emotional and social development is difficult to measure, yet it is the backbone of a good education.

My years of firsthand experience lead me to believe that multiple factors and methods determine students’ achievement. Alternative assessments such as students’ portfolios and presentations, classroom grades and test scores must all be used to award a high school diploma. It is patently unfair that one high-stakes standardized test determines high school graduation eligibility.

Susan Markowitz, Oak Street