Uncertain Failure: City Tanks MCAS
Two weeks after the state released the results, the implications of Cambridge's dismal showing in last spring's MCAS tests are still sinking in.
Although state scores moved up incrementally, Cambridge scores did not keep pace. The city saw no improvement--and even declines. Even after taking into account many eighth- and 10th-graders who boycotted the test, scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System showed no advances.
Students in grades 4, 8 and 10 take a battery of multiple-choice and written tests each spring in English, Mathematics, Science and Technology, and Social Studies. The tests are part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, which doubled state aid to education and established MCAS as a way of holding local school districts accountable for their students' performance.
The stagnant scores on these exams have frustrated school leaders in Cambridge, who had anticipated positive effects of recent literacy and curriculum initiatives.
School committee member Alfred B. Fantini calls the test scores a "wake-up call" and says he is frustrated that, despite vast amounts of data and resources committed to lowering class size and hiring teachers aides, test scores continue languishing. Cambridge has the highest per-pupil spending in the state--nearly $15,000 per student--but the money is not yielding results.
"We've done what other schools dream to do. Most superintendents would tell you if we only had small classes and teachers aides, our test scores would be off the wall," he says. "We have that and it's not happening."
"You've got to wonder where we're going," he adds. "It feels good when I'm in the schools but the test grades are not very high. The test grades are terrible."
Taking MCAS Seriously
A centerpiece of her tenure has been renewed focus on literacy in the early grades, but the fourth grade English scores showed no improvement.
D'Alessandro says she is reserving judgment until results come in from other standardized literacy assessments that elementary students took last spring. But the MCAS scores did not move in the right direction, she says.
"I was very surprised. I thought we would see some upward movement because of our intensive work in literacy," she says.
But fourth-grade English is just one part of an overall dreary MCAS outlook. The feeble scores have sparked administrators to question whether a general lethargy toward MCAS in Cambridge is keeping test scores low.
One year ago this month, the Cambridge School Committee voted not to punish teachers who oppose MCAS or students who boycott the test.
D'Alessandro says she still supports that policy. But she puts the negative community-wide attitude toward MCAS high on her list of reasons why scores in Cambridge have not been improving.
"I was wondering, did that kind of an attitude have a difference on kids as they took the test? How did they feel about it--this won't be important to me?" she says.
"Did the parents think we took it seriously?" she adds.
Director of Student Achievement and Accountability Lenora M. Jennings says groups that oppose MCAS are "pretty savvy in what they say."
In particular, the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE), a state-wide parent group centered in Cambridge, opposes the test as a high-pressure test.
They say the exam is biased, focuses on trivial and confusing questions, takes too much class time to administer and only widens the achievement gap between low- and high-income students.
"That's kind of a mantra that's heard around Cambridge," Jennings says. "It's heard and it's picked up by people who are on the fence."
Last year, she says school administrators tried to give kids a "reality check" and tell them that their performance on the test mattered for the district.
"I'm a little disappointed that didn't sink in," she says. "I'm not sure that applies to fourth graders. They go in guileless and do the best they can."
Larry W. Ward, a Cambridge parent whose eighth-grade daughter boycotted the MCAS tests last year, disputes that assessment.
"Kids are taking it serious. They can't pass the test," he says. "It's kind of sad they keep saying kids aren't taking it serious. It's just not true."
Ward is a member of CARE and, like other members of the group, he says MCAS tests are unfair and too high-stakes.
He says the state should stop using the test as a graduation standard and he says Cambridge schools need a thorough top-down overhaul.
"How did Hannah Jukovsky do on these tests?" the state-produced scorecard read, with her name in bold letters.
Below the headline were graphs and charts comparing her scores to the four MCAS grading categories: advanced, proficient, needs improvement and failing. She received a 200 on every test, the lowest possible failing grade.
Last spring, Jukovsky helped orchestrate a boycott of about 100 sophomores. When district MCAS scores came out last month, they showed a precipitous decline for CRLS. Cambridge school officials have attributed much of the plunge to the high proportion of boycotters in the 500-member tenth grade class.
"The emotional part of me is, aw good, we screwed it up. The Board of Ed must be really pissed," she says.
She says the boycott, which was larger in Cambridge than any city in the state, helped to focus public attention on MCAS. The boycott showed that students care about the disproportionate rate of MCAS failure for minority and low-income students, she says.
"It was the right thing to do last year. I don't think I'd take a similar approach this year," she says. Boycotting is "a pretty dangerous thing to do."
Starting this year, sophomores will have to pass the MCAS in order to graduate.
Jukovsky remains active in the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS (SCAM), working two afternoons a week with the student-run group.
She said students in SCAM have met with state representatives and begun working with parent-led organizations that oppose the MCAS tests.
An Unexpected Victory
That year, the Morse school scored well on the test--surprisingly well for a school with many low-income students. And the state picked Morse when it chose an elementary school to host the announcement of MCAS scores that year.
"They were rather in awe of the fact that we, as a school whose demographics indicated we would do poorly, did well," says Jim J. Coady, who was Morse school principal until he retired last year.
Under Coady's tenure, the school became the first to use Core Knowledge, a standardized curriculum produced by a national firm and tailored to individual schools' needs.
Now, D'Alessandro is working to standardize curriculum in Cambridge. But in 1995, when Morse started using Core Knowledge, no other school in the city used a standardized curriculum aligned with state guidelines.
According to Coady, that made a difference for Morse's MCAS scores, and MCAS scores made a difference for the Morse school.
In the past several years, the school began attracting more middle- and high-income families, he says.
At the same time, though, the school's MCAS scores have leveled off. Coady attributes that mainly to students transferring in, who have not gone through the school's curriculum during earlier grades.
Coady says he has reservations about MCAS. What he wants, he says, is an annual assessment so student performance can be monitored year-to-year, rather than waiting for MCAS scores at grades 4, 8 and 10.
But he supports the test--and as principal he was serious about getting students to take it.
When three eighth-graders suggested they might boycott the test, Coady called the students and their parents into his office.
"I told them we take great pride in taking the MCAS and doing well," he says. "This is an important test for us, because as we do well on it....We continue to attract parents."
All three students took the test.
On the Horizon
This spring for the first time, a diploma will be on the line for sophomores taking MCAS. And next year, the eighth-graders taking the test will have taken it as fourth-graders--so their performance can be compared directly.
Next year's scores will also mean another year's progress on aligning curriculum in Cambridge with state standards. D'Alessandro says she will also implement special summer school programs to help students at risk of failing the test.
With each year of discouraging scores, the stakes become higher for the next year.
"By next year...that should be enough time to say it's working," D'Alessandro says.