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Guest Column: The Standardized Test Trap

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Once again, we find ourselves at a crossroads with Public Education in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The last big shift was the Education Reform Act of 1993, when several changes were implemented, including the high stakes test known as MCAS. Since that time, Massachusetts has led the nation in Math and English Language Arts (ELA) test scores. Hooray for us!

Not so fast. What we have done to achieve this goal is simply teach to the test. We frame our lesson plans to use the same terminology that a student will see on the test. We add double blocks of Math and English so that students will get 90 minutes or more per day of the subject. We make Art, Science and Physical Education half-year classes or, in many cases, not available at all for students. In an era of childhood obesity, we cut the number of physical education teachers in half in many school districts. Art and Science teachers are required to incorporate the same language in their lesson as the Math and English teachers because students need to be familiar with words on the test. So, 21 years later, here we are, with the best scores in the nation.

Now we are faced with another mandated standardized test for public education, but this time it’s from the federal government, and it’s known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). The PARCC test was born out of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort adopted by the federal government with the support of numerous states, designed to craft standards across states in order to measure student readiness for higher education or the workforce. No one can deny that testing our students is a necessity and a good thing. My greatest concern is that PARCC is just a continuation of a bad practice we have already mastered with the MCAS. We are creating test takers, not well-rounded students.

Even more of a concern is the top-down method by which these tests are mandated and created. How many actual classroom teachers have input on these tests?

I attended a PARCC presentation at Minnechaug High School last month, and we were told that PARCC is just a way of upgrading MCAS and bringing it into the modern era. I’m not buying that argument. Public education should be a local pursuit. The community in which you live should be driving its local school district with support from the state and federal government. PARCC is the complete opposite of that theory. It’s the feds reaching into your students’ classrooms and literally dictating how the teacher teaches.

Let’s not fall into this cookie-cutter approach towards education. Let it remain a local initiative with support from the other levels of government. Each community has its own style and should not be dictated to when it comes to educating our youngest citizens.

Chip Harrington is a member of the Ludlow School Committee and a candidate for the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District state senate seat.

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From my reading, this is not a federal government program. The federal government does provide funds for the program however. A consortium of states has contracted with a private testing service (Pearson) to provide tests that are aligned with the Common Core which was initiated by the states and adopted by Mass. It's a little embarrassing when a candidate for a state senate seat throws out statements like: "It’s the feds reaching into your students’ classrooms and literally dictating how the teacher teaches," when that is apparently not the case. That's politics, I suppose.

Posted by Patrick Mattimore on 5.8.14 at 5:23

You are living in a fantasy land if you think Common Core is not a federal program.

In March 2009, the Department of Education revealed its backdoor method of gaining federal control of state educational policy when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Race to the Top (RTTT) program—an opportunity for states to compete for a share of $4.35 billion reserved for state education incentives by the American Recovery and Restoration Act. To even be eligible for funding, states had to promise that they would fully adopt a set of common college- and career-ready standards supplemented with only 15% of their own standards.

Posted by Stephan Perry on 5.8.14 at 12:56

The comment from Mr. Mattimore is correct but there are, unfortunately, other points made that are just not true:

1. Teaching to the Test - MCAS was intended to be a minimum measure, a floor, of basic skills for student proficiency. It has, however, become a ceiling in too many districts. Today, over 30% of our high school graduates who enroll in 4-year state colleges and 60% at community colleges have to take at least one remedial course in math or English before they can earn credit in those subjects. If anyone is still teaching to the MCAS, their expectations are too low and the problem isn't the test but the instruction and curriculum.

2. Federal Mandate - PARCC is not a mandate from the federal government. What test to use is a decision left up to the state. Just because Massachusetts was part of (and indeed a leader in) the consortium that is developing and field-testing PARCC does not obligate us to use it if it does not meet our high standards. US News and World Report's recent special section on Common Core is a good resource for information on the standards' development.

3. Modernizing Assessment - For an assessment to be valid and useful, it must be aligned to the standards taught. Many states’ exams, including our own MCAS, are not aligned with the current Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks (which incorporate Common Core State Standards) adopted four years ago and implemented for the past three. The proposed exams aligned to these standards will test students by requiring them to apply their knowledge to solve problems, instead of asking them to regurgitate facts and fill in bubbles like they do on MCAS exams.

Although we’ve led the nation since the passage of 1993’s Education Reform Act, we still have not remedied racial and socio-economic achievement gaps students.

There is nothing in the standards, the PARCC assessments or any federal involvement in how a teacher teaches. The local community decides what curriculum to use and what fits with its own style of instruction. These decisions can vary district to district. As a candidate for state senate, one hopes that Mr. Harrington gets all his facts straight before playing politics with public education.

Posted by Sonya B. on 5.8.14 at 13:44
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