When Governor William Weld signed the Education Reform Act, no one thought that within a short few years more than 90 percent of Massachusetts’ students would be passing the MCAS. Nor did anyone then believe that our 4th- and 8th-grade students would soon rank among the top-scoring nations on the Trends in International mathematics and Science Study exams.
Notwithstanding the state’s educational successes, critics of the MCAS—and of other elements of our accountability system such as a district and school audit system—remain. New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang castigates the MCAS for causing kids to drop out—wrongly, as can be seen in the percentage of dropouts [updated: in their senior year] who have already passed the MCAS and for reasons presented by former Senate President Tom Birmingham, a principal architect of the Education Reform Act of 1993.
Then there are the opponents of district and school audits—or at least audits that have teeth. These opponents include the leadership of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, the Association of School Superintendents, and especially the Urban Superintendents Association, which in early 2007 sketched out the playbook that Governor Patrick has employed on accountability – destroy real accountability and set up a fig-leaf system.
If we are to spend $9 billion a year on education, we need to hold the schools accountable for student achievement. Here are four actions we can take which relate to the MCAS:
- Objective testing must remain the primary way to signal growth in students’ academic achievement. That means maintaining the objectivity of the MCAS test and eschewing highly subjective and ill-defined ‘how-to’ skills in the academic frameworks. If teachers and principals want to utilize project-based teaching and test such matters, we welcome school-level efforts to do so. But the state needs a clear metric of content acquisition, as it is the most effective way to ensure success in college and the work place.
- The state must now reinstate testing of the mastery of United States history as a high school graduation requirement ($2.5 million). This subject area requirement was to go into effect in 2011, but the state mothballed the effort for political reasons (first they needed to postpone it to include “soft skills”, then they cried poor mouth after receiving hundreds of millions of federal stimulus dollars). The fact is that history provides context as students observe how our nation, the world, and its leaders change. Thomas Jefferson noted that mastery of history is elemental to understanding how to learn from the vice and virtue of political leadership and human action, as well as how to navigate toward practical solutions. The late historian Paul Gagnon, a leader in standards-based education reform, wrote of education in history, saying that
“Nothing less than people’s freedom is at stake—freedom to choose their own way in politics, and to choose their own mode of private culture, not to be indoctrinated by the fashions of their moment and milieu.”
Now more than ever, our schools need to promote student mastery of the enduring historical skills knowledge already embedded in the state’s 2003 History and Social Science Curriculum Framework.
- We need to reduce the time it takes to get MCAS results to teachers from the current four and a half months to two months. Ideally the MCAS test would be given in mid-June so we can capture the learning that occurred during a full school year. Changing the timing of the MCAS will require that results can be turned around between the end of June and the start of September.
- We need to fully fund MCAS test remediation ($30 million). In recent years, state education officials have made drastic cuts to the MCAS test remediation program. As a consequence, the state has developed what Education Reform architect and former Senate President Thomas Birmingham has called “a triage system for students.” Money for MCAS test remediation should be restored substantially and directed towards students at risk of not passing the MCAS test and therefore not graduating. That funding should be disbursed starting in the ninth grade, with students selected through an objective risk assessment system.
Crossposted at Boston.com’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog.