MCAS Should be Kept – and Deferred
Members of the Massachusetts House and Senate are about to consider a number of bills that seek to address concerns over use of the MCAS as a graduation requirement. Proponents behind some of these bills argue that MCAS should be eliminated altogether, while others support the existing schedule, which calls for passing the MCAS to be a requirement for the class of 2003. I disagree with both of these views.
The children of our state would benefit neither by throwing MCAS away, nor by rigidly adhering to the current schedule. They would best be served by delaying the graduation requirement until curriculum changes and teaching improvements are fully implemented and children have had a fair opportunity to meet the academic learning standards MCAS should be testing. We are not yet at that point.
Elimination of the MCAS requirement is not a solution. This would completely undercut education reform efforts called for in the 1993 Education Reform Act. The question of accountability would be ignored, and we would be telling children that high standards in learning are unimportant. Equally destructive would be the imposition of MCAS as a graduation requirement on children who, through no fault of their own, have not received adequate preparation to face this high stakes test. The failure rate would be inordinately high, and parents would know their children had been betrayed.
Having served on the Massachusetts Board of Education for the past five years, I care very deeply about preserving and furthering the gains of education reform in Massachusetts. Our curriculum frameworks are some of the best in the country and set fair and reasonable standards. The problem is that writing these frameworks has taken much longer than anticipated.
Now, while MCAS implementation remains on schedule, the full adoption of the curriculum frameworks and corresponding teaching improvements is indisputably far behind schedule. We did not fully anticipate the considerable time needed to implement the frameworks, nor the difficulties of searching out resources and materials necessary to teach to the frameworks.
As the decisive MCAS season approaches, many teachers and schools have made good-faith efforts to prepare students. But far too many tenth-graders will fail because they have not yet had the steady, cumulative experience of enriched and coherent academic preparation set out in the curriculum frameworks over the full length of their years in school.
Efforts to accelerate the pace of learning by students for whom serious education reform began only a few years ago will not help very much. What are, in effect, remedial experiences – after-school programs, weekend and summer classes – might indeed help some, but that isn’t the answer for most. More importantly, our very efforts at forced remediation have unintended consequences that may set in motion a downward slide that threatens the promise of education reform itself.
Intense classroom focus on the MCAS diverts thoughtful and thorough classroom implementation of the curriculum frameworks and corresponding professional development for teachers. Too many teachers succumb to pressures to take curriculum shortcuts, teaching narrowly and directly to isolated topics found in particular MCAS test items. Too many schools focus time and efforts on limited portions of the subject matter of English and math, and also undercut opportunities for study and learning in history, science, the arts, and foreign languages. This dilution of learning is directly contrary to the letter and spirit of the Education Reform Act.
Worst of all, the Department of Education is developing a last-chance test pitched to the lowest possible passing score. This is a form of differentiated expectations that ominously revives two-track, unequal opportunity teaching standards. This tacitly accepts as decisive and unchangeable the effects of real and assumed socio-economic burdens carried by students. Our children deserve better.
The key for many Massachusetts students to passing the MCAS and for all of them to having a genuinely fair shot at achieving excellence is longer, consistent study in fully implemented curricula, reliably taught. Schools cannot accomplish this overnight. Neither can the state – not with armies of tutors, nor through an appeals system, nor by any other means, including increased funding and the unwavering support of the business community.
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 all schools 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 a commitment to genuine implementation of the curriculum frameworks dictate the deferral of high-stakes MCAS. With deferral, the state Board of Education can also raise the passing score for graduation, thus securing real education reform. I urge parents and other voters to contact their legislators and ask them to support a deferred MCAS.
Dr. Edwin J. Delattre is dean of the Boston University School of Education and president emeritus of St. John’s College of Annapolis and Santa Fe. He served on the Massachusetts Board of Education from 1996 to 2001. March 22, 2001