Thursday, July 18, 2024

A rally March 3 at the State House in Boston supports the Thrive Act, which would end a test requirement for high school graduation. (Photo: Massachusetts Teachers Association via Instagram)

If Cambridge parents knew in 1998 the effect of the MCAS on children’s education, there would have been mass protests, a group of teachers and parents said during a March 21 forum marking the roughly quarter-century since the standardized test was introduced.

Of course, there were protests – many of them. Cambridge was even the home of the anti-standardized-assessment National Center for Fair & Open Testing, founded in 1985. (Known as FairTest, the organization is now based in Brooklyn, New York.)

The hour-and-a-half online forum was in large part just the latest protest, as organized by the Cambridge Retired Educators United and other groups as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System persists, administered yearly to public school students in grades 3-10, and legislation called Thrive Act awaits action on Beacon Hill.

Massachusetts is one of nine remaining states that requires students to pass a standardized test to get a high school diploma. The act would end a MCAS graduation requirement, as well as the state power to take over school districts because of poor test scores.

“The grad test really punishes students for the system’s failure to give them what they need,” said Lisa Guisbond, executive director of the Brookline nonprofit Citizens for Public Schools. When this requirement was suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic, high school graduation rates went up, Guisbond said.

One of the stated goals of standardized testing and federal policy programs such as No Child Left Behind in 2001 and Race to the Top in 2009 was to decrease the achievement gap between privileged and underprivileged students. This has not happened. “There were large gaps between black and white students in 2007, and there were large gaps between black and white students in 2022, and for some groups the gap has gotten even worse,” Guisbond said.

There’s been a long-standing argument that focusing heavily on test-focused academic instruction can close that achievement gap, even if the focus comes at the detriment of other areas of instruction.

“It’s never going to happen with high-stakes testing,” said Chris Montero, who teaches history at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. A lot of the students he has worked with have had significant interruptions to their education because their parents are extremely poor and have had to keep moving around to find housing they can afford. The school system by itself cannot overcome the immense amount of structural issues caused by poverty that lead to the achievement gap, he said.

Tutors and teachers’ experience

In his experiences with standardized testing starting as a tutor in Lawrence Public Schools, after the district was taken over by the state, “I was not there to help students become more literate, I was not there to help them with their math skills, I was there to help them when they took a multiple-choice exam known as the MCAS. It was drill and kill all day,” he said.

“What I saw was students who needed explicit education and instruction in literacy and in writing and in mathematics, but I wasn’t trained to do that and I wasn’t asked to do that. I was expected to teach them how to reduce the number of options on a test,” Montero said.

He has also seen students who passed their high school courses but are unable to get a high school diploma because they could not pass the MCAS.

Betsy Preval, a seventh-grade English-language arts teacher at the Cambridge Street Upper School, spoke about the harms the focus on standardized testing has done to English classes and curriculum. “It has pushed pacing, it has pushed breadth more than depth. What is gone now is project-based learning, deep-inquiry thinking, critical reasoning. I am one of the few educators within my school, within the upper schools, that actually provides time as an English teacher for independent reading. Because there’s no time,” Preval said. A frequent criticism of standard testing is that it puts emphasis on students interpreting short passages of text and teachers focus on that instead of building the stamina required to read full-length books.

Value of testing

Eighth-graders at every public school in Massachusetts will take four MCAS exams this year: mathematics, English, science and social studies, with a new pilot in civics. Cambridge Street Upper School students will also take the fall and winter iReady Benchmark Screeners, unit tests and unit assessments, as well as the smaller quizzes designed by teachers, Preval said.

Many of the assessments have pedagogical value, Montero said: letting teachers know where students are doing well and where they are not, and providing a way for teachers to understand what they might need to reteach. “The MCAS does none of those things,” he said.

“We don’t get the results until the next school year, when the kids are not our students anymore, and we are not able to address in our instruction what the test is showing us. It is useless,” Montero said.

“People are told they can’t opt out, it’s illegal,” Guisbond said, but in fact parents are always permitted to. Citizens for Public Schools says there is no state penalty for students who opt out up through the eighth grade, though some schools use the scores in assigning students to classes; in high school, a diploma is the stakes. (Citizens for Public Schools has a sample opt-out letter.)

A health perspective

Sam Cohen, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center who is the parent of two Morse School students, described the effects of testing he sees on young people. He also attended Cambridge Public Schools and said he “may be the only physician in the state without a high school diploma, because I did not take the MCAS in 10th grade and, as a result, did not technically graduate from high school. Don’t worry – I did graduate from medical school.”

He said he sees a lot of young people with significant amounts of stress and anxiety around school and the prospect of failing.

Stress and anxiety aren’t necessarily bad, he said: “They are important for growth, and I think it’s our intellectual and emotional signal that something is hard and deserves our attention. I think that’s the key: The cause of the anxiety must deserve our attention,” Cohen said.

But the MCAS isn’t like that, because the structure of the test provides “no direct feedback for students or teachers, with no opportunity for revision or reflection,” Cohen said. “These tests create a stressor without a payoff for growth.”

Another area of concern Cohen cited is the immense amount of time spent on test prep and what gets cut to spend time on it – namely, physical activity. Recess has been shown to have a huge impact on a young person’s physical health and their academic achievement. “Yet this time is almost always the first that’s sacrificed for new skills instruction,” he said. He criticized a new Cambridge elementary school schedules that reduces recess time.