Edwin J. Delattre’s Letter to the Board of Education Regarding MCAS

in BU In the Community, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, News Releases
March 1st, 2001

To Chairman and Members,
Massachusetts Board of Education
Commissioner David P. Driscoll
Members, Joint Committee on Education, Arts, and Humanities, Massachusetts Legislature

Dear Colleagues and Honorable Members:

Having served on the Massachusetts board of education since 1996, I have requested that my successor be appointed. I offer a last, urgent counsel to my board colleagues, because I care very deeply about preserving and furthering the gains of Massachusetts education reform. Our curriculum frameworks are some of the best in the country and set fair and reasonable standards for the future. In that future, MCAS will deserve public support as a tool to help our schools provide abundant educational opportunity for students. But it is time to say honestly that for now, we cannot give all our students a fair chance on a high-stakes administration of MCAS. It is time to defer MCAS as a condition of graduation until those students in grade 1 during the first administration of the test reach grade 10 in 2007.

In fact, we are nowhere near being able to guarantee that all students have been offered the opportunity to meet academic learning standards MCAS should be testing—not even at the ‘needs improvement’ level, never mind the ‘proficient’ level that we want students to attain or exceed. No such assurances can be given so long as MCAS is made a condition of graduation without regard to the pace of classroom implementation of the curriculum frameworks, upon which the tests are predicated. Now, while MCAS implementation remains on schedule, the full adoption of the curriculum frameworks and corresponding teaching improvements is indisputably far behind schedule. It has simply taken far more time than expected to produce the new curriculum frameworks. We did not fully anticipate the considerable time needed by administrators and teachers to whom the frameworks are circulated to study and absorb their often broad and far-reaching implications for curriculum and teaching. Nor have we sufficiently taken into account the difficulties of searching out the resources to teach to the frameworks and, especially, of acquiring matching new materials. Allowing implementation and testing to separate is neither sensible nor fair.

As the decisive MCAS season approaches, the board of education, the state, friends of education reform and, primarily, teachers and schools have all made good-faith efforts to prepare students to make it ‘over the bar.’ But all the efforts to accelerate the pace of learning by students for whom serious education reform began only a few years ago, in the middle of their school experience, will not avail. Foreshortened learning efforts now will not purchase success on MCAS for most students. What are, in effect, remedial experiences—after school hours, weekends, summer classes—may indeed help some clear the bar to ‘needs improvement.’ But far too many will fail because they have not yet had steady, cumulative experience of enriched and coherent academic sequences set out in the curriculum frameworks. Moreover, only that fuller experience can reliably lead them to sufficient reading, thinking, and writing in the subjects studied to achieve ‘proficient’ and ‘advanced’ performance. Not all students have by any means been given a fair shot at these levels.

There is more to the issue before us. Our very efforts at forced remediation have unintended consequences that short-circuit the implementation of the curriculum frameworks and may set in motion a downward slide that threatens the promise of education reform itself. First, and most important in the long run, the intense classroom focus on the high-stakes MCAS diverts thoughtful and thorough classroom implementation of curriculum frameworks and corresponding professional development for teachers. Too many teachers succumb to the pressures to take curriculum shortcuts and cut to the chase. They second-guess the tests, teach narrowly and directly to isolated topic types found in particular MCAS test items. Neglected are the larger subject context and the scope and sequence connections that should guide classroom lessons and lead students systematically toward high academic standards. Too many schools succumb to the pressures to focus their time and efforts on the “high-stakes” subject matter of English and math alone. They restrict student opportunities for study and learning in history, science, the arts, and foreign language. This dilution of learning and limiting of curricula are directly contrary to the letter and spirit of the Education Reform Act and will drive education down and away from what all students deserve.

Raw, hastily formed palliatives compound the danger. We have tied accountability to the MCAS schedule rather than to a reasonable pace of curriculum and teaching improvement. Our pace should acknowledge the actual lengthy course of producing and introducing the curriculum frameworks. Our pace should provide time to design new curricula, time to prepare them, both as to teaching and to acquisition of matching new materials, and time to adjust to continuing framework refinement into 2001. Abstract expectations of school improvement calculated directly on MCAS scores that ignore implementation realities are terribly artificial. Their first application has produced some quite random results within well-known socio-economic patterns. This is a crude form of pressure that can only provoke compliance in the form of further concentration on tests at the expense of careful implementation of curriculum frameworks. Worst of all, in order to keep to the MCAS schedule, we are rushing into the addition of a “focus” test pitched to the lowest possible passing score. This is a form of differentiated expectations—’advanced’ and ‘proficient’ for some, ‘needs improvement’ for others—that instantly revives two-track, unequal opportunity teaching standards and tacitly accepts as decisive and unchangeable the effects of real and assumed socio-economic burdens carried by students.

Four years is considered by some to be sufficient preparation for high-stakes test-taking. But the key for many Massachusetts students to passing the MCAS and the key for all of them to having a genuinely fair shot at proficiency and excellence is longer, consistent study in fully implemented curricula, reliably taught. The state cannot ensure, by armies of tutors, by an appeals system, or by any other means, including the generous increased funding and the unwavering support of the business community, that by 2001—or 2003—the “vast majority of students [can] acquire the knowledge and skills they need to meet the standards.” That is the condition of fairness recently laid out by the board chairman. But only schools and teachers can ensure that¾by taking, one-by-one, the measured steps toward implementation of the curriculum frameworks and by providing to every student, from kindergarten onward, all the consequent improvements in educational opportunity.

The translation of high academic standards into coherent, effective classroom practices is a massive, intellectually demanding undertaking. Teachers and schools have had largely to find their own way up to now. Good teaching to high academic standards has always existed, here and there, in many Massachusetts’ schools, and it goes on as before. But until Massachusetts schools in aggregate emerge from this early stage of curriculum and teaching improvement, we should not impose consequences on individual students and their families beyond what they already suffer from inadequate schooling. For now, fairness to students and genuine implementation of the curriculum frameworks dictate the deferral of high-stakes MCAS.

Sincerely yours,
Edwin J. Delattre
Professor of Philosophy
College of Arts and Sciences


cc: Governor Paul Cellucci
Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift
Mr. Michael Sentance
President Thomas F. Birmingham, Massachusetts State Senate
Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, Massachusetts House of Representatives
Members, Massachusetts Board of Higher Education
Mr. S. Paul Reville, Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission
Ms. Kathleen Kelly, Massachusetts Federation of Teachers
Massachusetts Association of State School Superintendents
Massachusetts Secondary School Principals Association
Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association
Massachusetts Association of State School Committees
Massachusetts Parent/Teacher/Student Association
Massachusetss Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Mass Insight Education

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