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Ten years ago, Massachusetts policymakers adopted a strategy of radical reforms for education. A key feature of the reform strategy was the use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to measure student learning. Since MCAS was first administered in 1998, it has spawned a very vigorous, sustained debate. Initially, the debate was healthy and constructive, but now it has become distraction. We can continue to argue about measuring sticks, or we can commit ourselves to solving the fundamental, underlying problem: inequality in education.
MCAS is part of a standards-based reform strategy based on a simple set of equity-driven, common sense principles and practices. The cornerstone is the establishment of high standards for all students. These standards reflect the basic requirements for entry level success in higher education and employment. Progress in achieving the standards is measured with regular assessments followed by consequences - an accountability system with interventions, rewards and sanctions based on performance.
In my view, this standards-based strategy offers our society its best chance ever of achieving its twin educational dreams of equity and excellence. I would join with William Taylor, one of our nation’s most distinguished civil rights advocates, who stated, “the standards movement could be the most important vehicle for the educational progress of minority and poor students since Brown v. Board of Education.”
Proponents see MCAS as an essential diagnostic and accountability tool, while it often seems as though critics, seeing MCAS as unfair, believe that if we just got the testing instrument right, then all children would be able to demonstrate mastery. This is manifestly false. MCAS tests show what virtually all tests have generally shown, that knowledge and skill in our society are unequally and unfairly distributed. The question is: What do we do about it?
The most controversial aspect of MCAS is the stakes attaching - for the first time this year - to performance on the 10th grade test. These stakes are a distinct policy intervention designed to create incentives for effort and performance. The stakes make the test results matter, they make performance count. The stakes are the fulcrum of the accountability system, an essential, pivotal component. They create the urgency, the push to dislodge the low expectations that characterize the status quo, and creates the widely disparate impact of our current, ineffective and unequal system of public schooling.
Historically, tests without stakes have seldom driven change or improvement. In Massachusetts, we have had countless standardized tests over the years that have demonstrated the widespread, well known and commonly accepted inequity in education. Typically, the results of these tests were accepted with a shrug of resignation and nothing changed. Now, we have MCAS. The results demonstrate the same inequities, but this time, there are real stakes, and suddenly change is everywhere. More resources and attention than ever before are aimed at those children who we have historically served least well in education. Teachers are engaged in more professional development than ever before. Curriculum is changing to align with state standards. Teaching is everywhere being reconsidered and altered for greater effectiveness. In other words, the tests are already the direct cause of substantial change in Massachusetts’ schools.
Under a high stakes system, the state must fairly and appropriately administer the consequences. Here is what Massachusetts has done so far:
Students have five chances to pass the MCAS prior to graduation. Soon there will be even more testing opportunities. There is an appeals process that seeks to equate classroom performance with expected MCAS performance in instances where students feel that MCAS consistently fails to measure their genuine level of achievement. There is a “certificate of attainment” for those who have met local graduation requirements but fail to achieve an MCAS competency determination and want to be recognized with their class on graduation day.
Critics claim that withholding a diploma for failure to achieve the competency standard on MCAS is a “punishment” to the student. Proponents believe that although failure to graduate on time with one’s class can be a painful inconvenience, it is a far greater injustice for educators to pass students on to college or employment knowing they lack skills or knowledge that will likely be required to meet the next challenges in their lives. Instead of a punishment, we offer the benefit of additional education to each student, an education specifically aimed at providing that student the skill and knowledge he or she needs to be successful.
Our goal of having everyone meet the new higher standards is within reach. Most importantly, the results to date show that any kind of student, from any background or ethnicity can achieve the standard if the learning conditions are right. In fact, an overwhelming majority of students (90 percent), representing virtually all sub-categories in the first class, the class of 2003, have already attained the standard in both English and Math. This demonstrates that the standard is reasonable and well within the reach of all of our students. They are not prevented from attaining this standard by virtue of their DNA, their race, social class or their neighborhood. They can do it if we figure out how to assist each and every one.
Other encouraging data:
-For the class of 2003, 83 percent of African-American students have passed English, 79 percent passed math and 75 percent passed both. For Hispanics, the numbers are 80 percent, 75 percent and 70 percent. For limited English proficient 72 percent, 77 percent and 67 percent and for disabled students, 79 percent, 72 percent and 69 percent.
-For the class of 2004, 86 percent passed the English exam on the first try; 75 percent passed the math on the first try.
-For the class of 2004, two-thirds of African American students passed the English exam on the first try, up from 60 percent the preceding year; 61 percent of Latino students passed English on the first try, up from 52 percent the preceding year.
-At the University Park Campus School, a small, inner city public school in Worcester, 100 percenr of their completely low income and mostly minority student body has passed the 10th grade MCAS in both subjects for two years running.
In other words, it can be done if we can get the conditions of teaching and learning right.
We should all be deeply concerned about those who might fail to graduate from high school due to the enforcement of stakes for performance on statewide assessments. We have an ongoing obligation to these students, a promise to stick with them and give them whatever they need in order to attain proficiency. No one is guaranteed to graduate in four years, but they should be guaranteed the opportunity to attain mastery, no matter how long it takes. In the end, helping students to mastery is infinitely preferable to passing them on unqualified to certain failure because in our misguided sympathy, we see it as generous to exempt them from the kind of stakes in education that life routinely imposes on them. They don’t need waivers or exemptions or protection. They need the chance to learn.
Standards, MCAS and accountability are here to stay. Standards based reform and the assessments and stakes that animate it are a conspiracy against the pervasive, soft discrimination of low expectations. Rather than expending our energies debating MCAS, we should be waging war, replete with educational improvement strategies, against those low expectations.
S. Paul Reville is a lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is executive director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at MassINC.
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