Lesson from LA: Less standardized testing

Unfortunately, Mass. policymakers continue to go all-in for exams

TEACHING CHILDREN is one of the hardest and most important things a society does. So teachers should be treated as among the most valued members of our society.

That’s the message that drew hundreds of thousands into the streets of Los Angeles last month to support striking teachers. The result was a historic agreement illustrating a new strategy toward educational excellence and equity. Massachusetts should follow a similar path forward.

The Los Angeles demonstrators understood that teachers cannot do their vital jobs within systems that hamstring their support of students. That’s why they demanded improved conditions for learning as well as additional salary.

One key issue was reducing standardized exams so there can be more time for learning. Teachers will be part of a committee working alongside district officials to address over-testing. Beginning next school year, the committee will list all district assessments and develop a plan to reduce them at least by half.

Massachusetts prides itself as being a leader on education. But years of test-and-punish policies and chronic underfunding have left us with some of the nation’s largest racial inequities in education. Behind the boasts is the disgraceful reality of stagnant gaps in opportunity and achievement. For example, in fourth-grade math, only two out of 50 states had significantly larger black-white or Latino-white score gaps on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. From 2003 to 2017, Massachusetts’ score gaps on the assessment have remained huge in reading and math at every grade level.

Yet Commonwealth policy makers continue to go all in for high-stakes testing. They cling to a high school exit exam while other states have abandoned theirs as ineffective and unfair. From a high of 26 states, only 12 states, including Massachusetts, still use graduation tests. California, for example, has not only eliminated its exam but awarded diplomas retroactively to those denied them by the previous hurdle.

 Educators, students, and parents who are tired of testing overkill strongly support real accountability. For example, they believe in holding political leaders accountable for providing adequate resources for a quality education. That’s why FairTest and Citizens for Public Schools are part of the growing statewide Fund Our Future coalition. The coalition supports the PROMISE Act to fix the badly outdated school funding formula.

The Commonwealth has locked our public schools into test-based accountability for more than two decades. This approach has made little to no progress for our most vulnerable students. It has failed to provide high-quality schools for every child, no matter their zip code. Even former secretary of education Paul Reville has acknowledged the state’s failure to erase disparities between black, Latino and low-income students and their white, suburban counterparts.

Now, Gov. Charlie Baker and his allies propose to double down on their unsuccessful strategy. Baker’s proposal includes a provision that would withhold money from districts with low test scores unless they acquiesce to the prescriptions of the commissioner of education. Is that how wealthy families in Swampscott, Wellesley, or Brookline react when they have a struggling child? No, they pull out the stops and invest in support services so the child can succeed.

Raising the stakes attached to test-based accountability only piles on punishment for schools that educate poor children, students with disabilities, and recent immigrants.

Meet the Author

Andre Green

Executive director/member, FairTest/Somerville School Committee
Los Angeles offers a better path forward for Massachusetts and the nation: Give schools and teachers the resources to thrive and reduce the burden of standardized exams so there is less testing, more learning.

Andre Green is executive director of FairTest and a member of the Somerville School Committee.