Putting standardized testing to the test

With spring comes the annual ritual of MCAS testing in Massachusetts schools. It’s how we gauge the performance of individual students as well as schools and districts. The assessment of basic skills in math, English, and, more recently, science offers a snapshot of academic achievement levels, and it is the central measure used in the state’s accountability system that aims to hold schools responsible for outcomes.

And, argues Jack Schneider, it fundamentally gets everything wrong.

The UMass Lowell professor wrote in his recent book, Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality, “We have two decades of evidence that current approaches to educational measurement are insufficient and irresponsible.”

Schneider says on this week’s Codcast that test scores serve only as “demographic data in disguise,” telling us more about the family income of students than about the quality of their education.

He’s part of a cohort of critics who say the testing and accountability systems that have accompanied the modern education reform movement have served to narrow the curriculum — particularly in schools serving lots of poor kids. Test scores, he says, tell us nothing about how safe students feel, whether they are “developing as citizens,” and whether they feel engaged by school.

Schneider, whose third-grade daughter attends a Somerville public school, said, “I care a lot less about MCAS scores than I do if my daughter gets along with her classmates” or whether she is “exploring her own interests and passions” and gaining a “sense of civic responsibility.”

The conversation turned to familiar debate in education circles. While almost everyone would regard the things Schneider describes as important, the education reform movement was driven by a sense of alarm that poorer kids were not gaining basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to make it in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. No amount of arts education or focus on social skills, say reform advocates, can make up for that.

“I’m not exactly sure that literacy and numeracy sit at the top of a hierarchy,” said Schneider, who says education for more privileged students doesn’t involve a trade-off between core academic skills and arts and music education.

“I want all of that for every kid,” he said. “I am not OK saying that we are going to give more privileged kids everything, and we are going to make less privileged kids literate and numerate.”

Schneider is particularly critical of the way the state accountability system turns test scores into “policy weapons” that he says narrow the mission of schools. He says the rating of schools and districts by test scores, which don’t necessarily capture the quality of instruction or school curriculum, tend to reinforce patterns based on community income levels. “That segregates our Commonwealth even more than it already is,” he said.

Schneider is research director for an initiative called the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, which includes eight districts in the state that are piloting the use of an alternative assessment that takes a broader measure of school quality and student outcomes.

He says it’s an attempt to design the “accountability system of the future.” Schneider calls it a “moonshot” project aimed at doing “everything that everybody wants.”

He’s not expecting to see it adopted wholesale by the state. But even in a worse-case scenario, if the state ends up measuring school quality “a bit more comprehensively,” presenting data that aren’t so “skewed toward whiter and more affluent schools and districts,” and scales back some of the sanctions of the accountability system, he said, “that’s a victory for me.”

MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

While testifying before the labor committee, Rep. Dan Cullinane called out the “usual bluster and b.s. of those who only seek to yell and scream and name-call at rallies when the cameras are on and from the steps of the State House,” which many saw as a rebuke of AFL-CIO Massachusetts president Steve Tolman. (WGBH)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has probably not visited a homeless housing facility before and says there needs to be a change in the federal agency. (WGBH)

Fall River has held its first-ever Pride Festival, 50 years after the Stonewall Riots began the modern movement for LGBTQ rights in the US. (Herald News)

The Manchester by-the-Sea Police Department bought an old Coast Guard boat that will allow officers to patrol waterways without interfering with the Harbormaster, which uses the department’s other patrol boat. (Gloucester Daily Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Denunciations and demonstrations follow a tweet by Rhode Island’s Catholic bishop saying Catholics should not take part in “Pride month” events celebrating the LBGTQ community because they “promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals.” (Boston Globe)

The New York Times delves into the multiple ties between Elaine Chao, the US transportation secretary — and wife of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — and the Chinese government through Foremost, her family’s international shipping firm.

The Eagle-Tribune couldn’t find any D-Day veterans in the area to mark the 75th anniversary of the invasion that helped topple the Nazi regime, so the paper spoke to a local who was a gunner on a bomber and another man who was a sailor on a US Navy oiler.

ELECTIONS

Jeanne Kangas, vice chair of the Massachusetts GOP, tells Republicans in the Bay State not to be intimidated, to speak out. (CommonWealth)

Three Boston city council candidates, including two vying for one of the four at-large seats, are teaming up to open a joint campaign office in Roxbury. (Boston Globe)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

William Smith, a visiting fellow at the Pioneer Institute, says gene editing of plants has the potential to transform the way food is produced. (CommonWealth) Investors have been pouring funding into agricultural technology, including Boston-based Freight Farms, and the California company Beyond Meat, which received financial backing from Tyson Foods. (WBUR)

The Globe visits the gleaming new professional soccer stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota, to ask why Boston doesn’t have such a facility.

EDUCATION

In the face of repeated legislative delays, state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley throws in the towel on the unique charter school expansion he negotiated in New Bedford. (CommonWealth)

Bank of America’s Massachusetts president Miceal Chamberlain and College Bound Dorchester CEO Mark Culliton say the Boston Uncornered initiative that helps former gang members get college degrees not only changes lives but can transform the economy of violence-plagued neighborhoods. (Boston Globe) CommonWealth looked at the College Bound model in this 2017 feature story and this audio interview with Matt Jackson, a former gang member who went from crack dealer to college student.

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Patrick Stapleton, the CEO of Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain, has a game plan for retaining nursing home talent. (CommonWealth)

ARTS/CULTURE

Stanley Rosenberg, the former Senate president, and Dan Hunter say students need a new skill set — creativity — and schools need to teach it. (CommonWealth)

TRANSPORTATION

A temporary railroad platform installed at the end of May at the recreation area underneath the bridge now allows passengers aboard the CapeFlyer and heading to Bourne to bypass bridge traffic altogether. (Cape Cod Times)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The Baker administration decides to double the amount of offshore wind procurements, a decision that appears to have strong benefits along with some risks. (CommonWealth)

Scrutiny of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is continuing after if permanently shutdown on Friday, with lawmakers and the public concerned about high-level radioactive waste stored on the property. (Cape Cod Times)

W. Bart Lloyd, an attorney and affordable housing advocate, says carbon pricing is needed if the nation is going to address climate change. He notes only two of the nine members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation support putting a price on carbon. (CommonWealth)

CASINOS

Michael Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, acknowledges the casino is performing below expectations and has some theories on how to boost revenues. (MassLive)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A Globe editorial implores the US attorney’s office to begin a conspiracy investigation of the State Police overtime scandal.

WBUR checks in on the Varsity Blues prosecution, where US Attorney Andrew Lelling has netted 20 guilty pleas while another 29 defendants fight the college admissions corruption charges.

Since January 1, 146 people in the Lawrence area have been arrested for crimes ranging from murder to drug trafficking to rape in what Lelling’s office has dubbed “Operation Triple Beam.” (Salem News)

New Bedford police are actively investigating an assault and battery with a dangerous weapon resulting in serious injury in the North End on Phillips Avenue. (Standard-Times)

MEDIA

GateHouse Media is consolidating 50 weekly newspapers in Massachusetts into 18. (MassLive)

Meanwhile, the Berkshire Eagle stands as an outlier in the age of shrinking newspapers, with the Pittsfield-based paper showing some fresh life after it was reverted to local ownership. (Boston Globe)

Mainstream news media tend to under-cover the most serious threats to life and over-cover some of the least serious. (Nieman Journalism Lab)