Don’t bemoan harder, next-gen MCAS

It’s not about test scores, but better preparing students

I WAS A  6th GRADE math teacher in 2000-2001 when the state rolled out the 6th grade math MCAS test for the first time. I remember being furious and frustrated with the test itself when I saw it. I thought the test was too hard.  The work it expected of 6th graders was not aligned with my previous notions of what 6th graders could or should be able to do.

I was wrong. The 6th grade math MCAS was indeed a very rigorous test, particularly by standards of the time. But my 6th graders were more than capable of rising to that challenge. The test pushed me to expand my understanding of what my kids were capable of doing, and ultimately made me a better teacher.

Today, I am an administrator at a network of charter schools. I confess to having similar feelings when I saw our kids’ performance on the 2017 “next generation” MCAS. The test must somehow have been flawed. For context, our students had ranked among the top performing districts in the state under the “legacy MCAS” and PARCC tests. However, under the “next generation” MCAS, while our students still performed very well when compared to state averages and other Boston schools, our standing relative to top suburban districts had dropped considerably.

The test is not the problem. In fact, because it is more rigorous than the previous version, we recognize that the next generation MCAS provides us with an important opportunity to reset our expectations for our kids. We welcome the elevated rigor, despite the fact that it resulted in lower relative performance for our students this year. That’s because our goal has never been to help our students perform well on standardized tests in grades 3-8. Those tests are just a benchmark along the way that can signal how well we are preparing our students to succeed in college and beyond.

Although we are thankful for the opportunity provided by the state’s revised and more rigorous standards and assessments, we also recognize that the mere act of raising the bar will not by itself result in a better education for our kids. Those standards and assessments only provide us with goals and direction. Now comes the hard part: working to prepare our kids to meet the challenges spelled out in those standards and assessments. And nowhere is that work more pressing, more urgent, and more incomplete than when it comes to providing meaningful educational opportunity to our students of color and low-income students in communities across the state.

There is a debate to be had as to how we can best answer that challenge, and whether we can best do so through reform or revenue, or a combination of the two (see the 1993 Education Reform Act).

What is abundantly clear is that we won’t answer that challenge by continued dithering over whether our standards and assessments are just right. We can’t afford to continue to switch up our assessments from year to year. Doing so is the equivalent of spinning our wheels.

It should also go without saying, but we certainly won’t answer that challenge by ceasing altogether to measure the progress our kids are making. That idea should be a non-starter to anyone who is seriously invested in providing educational opportunity to all students across our state. We simply can’t close that opportunity/achievement gap if we stop tracking it altogether.

Meet the Author

Jon Clark

Co-Director, Brooke Charter Schools
We’re fortunate to have the most rigorous standards and assessments in place that we’ve ever had. Now let’s get to work on the stuff that really matters.  Elevating teaching. Empowering principals and schools. Focusing on the toughest, most rewarding, and important work that our schools can do: creating classrooms and schools where all of our kids can thrive.

Jon Clark is co-director of the Brooke Charter Schools in Boston.