Educators Give Low Marks to State Test

K-12 Testing

A group of educators from across Massachusetts have formed a statewide coalition to address concerns with the new Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and to advocate for continued reform of the state assessment system. The first round of results on the statewide tests, given at grades 4, 8 and 10 in English, math and science and technology, showed that the majority of students in a state widely praised for its educational quality were not "proficient."


The coalition, the Ad-Hoc Committee on MCAS, conducted a study of eighty percent of the MCAS test items. The group gave low marks to the test. Calling the exam "poorly written, filled with trivia and ambiguities, excessively long and lacking a recognizable educational purpose," the coalition concluded that the tests were difficult, but lacking in academic rigor. They cited confusing directions and graphs, ambiguous or long-winded questions, developmentally inappropriate reading levels on grade 4 and 10 tests, and excessive length as some reasons students may have difficulty scoring high on the exam.


At a news conference held to release the coalition's findings, Vito Perrone, Director of Teacher Education Programs at Harvard Graduate School of Education, who helped conduct the MCAS review, explained, "A good education helps young people get to the heart of things. The MCAS tests encourage students to skim the surface and memorize material they will soon forget. They do not promote the high standards that schools should be working towards."


Subsequent to the group's findings, science teachers at Boston's prestigious Latin school and a suburban high school, both high-scoring schools, reported problems with the 10th grade science exam, including the absence of a possible correct answer or multiple correct answers on one-third of the questions.


Impact on Instruction

Educators have expressed concern that emphasis on the exam will undermine quality in instruction, leading teachers to change their curriculum to match the exam rather than direct their efforts towards the broader state standards and in-depth understanding of content.


"Success for all kids -- rich and poor -- requires high standards linked to rigorous, performance-based assessment," said Deborah Meier, a Boston school principal and previous recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. "The MCAS, however, is eminently coachable, will weaken the quality of many schools and will do little to cause real improvements where they are needed."


Other educators, such as Judith Baker, a teacher at Madison Park High School in Boston, expressed concerns for students in urban communities, where low scores may lead to harsh judgements and penalties for those schools. "We fear that due to the pressure to raise scores on the MCAS, schooling for children from less privileged communities will be reduced to test coaching," she explained. The coalition urged that school and district scores be placed in context by state officials and the media, taking into account the socioeconomic factors of the community the school serves.


However, news coverage emphasized school and district rankings. Reports in the Boston Globe included such articles as "Newton wins this round vs. Brookline," "On test, neighbors set aside rivalry," and "Reading, North Reading see changes," referring to some North Reading residents' pleasure over gaining a higher rank than their historically higher scoring Reading neighbors.


High-stakes test

Under a new system schools and districts that don't significantly raise test scores in five years could face sanctions and state takeover. In addition, the state plans to use the 10th grade MCAS as a high school graduation test. During the news conference, Karen Hartke of FairTest asserted that such an action violates professional standards for proper test use as well as recent recommendations from the National Research Council (see Examiner, Fall 1998).


The Ad-Hoc Committee plans to continue raising concerns about the MCAS and to advocate for the implementation of multiple means of student and school evaluation. "To capture the original intent and spirit of education reform in Massachusetts," the coalition recommends that the test be re-examined and improved; that a comprehensive assessment system (as denoted by "MCAS") be implemented to include portfolios, projects, presentations, and exhibitions; and that "genuine accountability" for schools be based on more than test results, including resources, teacher quality, and safety.