MCAS history exam in need of funding, fine-tuning

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Although I share many of the concerns that Jamie Gass expressed in his  article “U.S. history an innovative field worth teaching” earlier this week, I’m  alarmed by Gass’ approach to the issue.

In the article, Gass lambastes state officials for postponing the history  MCAS, a statewide standardized exam that high-school students would need to pass  in order to graduate. Without the exam, Gass argues, history classes are seen as  less important for school districts, and are more likely to be cut.

And I agree. In my school, and in those around me, I have found time and time  again that history and social-science programs are more understaffed than those  areas currently subject to the tests: English, math and science. But instead of  explaining why the state decided to postpone the exam, Gass points fingers,  writing that “career educationists… disparage the ideal of a liberal arts  education for citizenship.” This is simply not the case.

On Feb. 24, 2009, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary  Education voted to postpone the graduation requirement for the history MCAS  temporarily due to “severe budget constraints.” The board also voted “to  establish a timeline for reinstituting the history and social science (MCAS) as  expeditiously as possible.” Without the proper funding, the board argued, local  school districts would not have the resources to help at-risk students pass the  test.

That’s right: the board opted to postpone MCAS rather than implement it as an unfunded mandate that might prove hazardous to school  districts already scrambling to balance budgets.

One benefit to postponing the exam, though, is allowing time to improve it.  Pilot exams were given in 2007 and 2008 to grades 5 and 7, and to grades 10 or  11. Those exams were too fact-heavy and unintentionally supported “teaching to  the test” and rote memorization at the cost of understanding key concepts and  ideas. I hope that when the history MCAS is reinstated, the exam will be more  comprehensive and multidimensional to give students a stronger and more  meaningful education.

It’s likely that postponing the history MCAS did lead to cuts in funding for  the social sciences in our public schools, and voters should hold their local  school committees accountable for that. But simply reinstating the history MCAS  without providing more funding to our schools and revision to those exams would  make a bad situation worse for our students.

Also seen in Lowell Sun Online.