A diploma means nothing without evidence of skills and learning

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Education reform in Massachusetts was a grand bargain: a massive infusion of state dollars into our public schools in return for high academic standards and accountability from all. We still have a long way to go, but few would deny that reform has been tremendously successful, and the MCAS test is a cornerstone of that success.

Between 1993, when education reform was enacted, and 1998, Massachusetts pumped an additional $1 billion into education aid. But during that period, state reading scores didn’t improve and mathematics scores rose only marginally. After the state began MCAS testing in 1998, both skyrocketed.

By 2005, Massachusetts became the first state ever to finish first in all four categories of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card. When the test was next administered in 2007, the Commonwealth’s students did it again. Massachusetts’s SAT scores have also risen dramatically and, recently, U.S. News and World Report rated our public high schools as the very best in the nation.

New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang resurrects the old argument that MCAS testing requires teachers to “teach to the test.” Instead of instilling a love of learning, he argues, it results in students mindlessly replicating material on which they’ve been drilled. It’s a good story line, but the national data reveal the truth about the success of standards-based reforms in the Bay State.

MCAS tests students on the academic content of the Commonwealth’s curriculum frameworks, and those frameworks got it right. The frameworks consist of knowledge and skills, such as literacy and numeracy, that are universally necessary. In a Washington Post op-ed this February, noted educator E.D. Hirsch wrote, “Consider the eighth-grade NAEP results from Massachusetts, which are a stunning exception to the nationwide pattern of stagnation and decline… That is because Massachusetts decided … students (and teachers) should learn explicit, substantive things about history, science, and literature, and that students should be tested on such knowledge.”

MCAS doesn’t require students to know when the Battle of Hastings happened, but it does make sure they can write. Far from crowding out important subjects, MCAS simply ensures the achievement of minimum academic standards in content areas like literature, poetry, history, and mathematics. Although Mayor Lang cavalierly dismisses MCAS as having “no relevance in determining success over future careers and endeavors,” in fact a recent study by the Board of Higher Education established that there is a strong correlation between MCAS scores and success in college.

In making his case against the MCAS exam, the mayor falls prey to the low expectations that have hampered education reform for too long, especially in our cities. He argues that many urban public high school graduates simply go on to work in low-skill jobs that can’t be outsourced, don’t require high-level skills, and are therefore unaffected by global economic changes. By not giving a diploma to students who complete all their requirements except passing the MCAS test, he argues, we are dooming them to the life of a high school dropout, with employment prospects that are limited at best.

Thankfully, New Bedford’s residents are more optimistic, choosing instead to pursue the higher aspirations that are within reach for so many more of our citizens over the last 15 years, thanks to education reform. More than three-quarters of the class of 2007 at New Bedford High School advanced to higher education, while just 16 percent moved straight into the workforce. The majority made a smart and self-interested decision because by 2010 jobs requiring at least some post-secondary education will make up more than two-thirds of the new jobs created in the United States, according to a report put out by the Educational Testing Service in 2003.

The relatively few in New Bedford’s Class of 2007 who did go directly to work found a world in which the service jobs that the mayor calls “the backbone of our communities and their local economies” are quickly disappearing. Even if some young people can find work that requires little in the way of credentials, those jobs will become harder and harder to get — and they rarely provide real opportunities for career advancement.

Contrary to Mayor Lang’s assertions, even the jobs that have traditionally been available to those without a higher education have been affected by global economic changes. In order for a mechanic to be certified, he or she must be able to perform a computerized diagnostic test. Understanding the directions for the test requires post-secondary reading skills. I have represented building trades unions for decades and can personally attest to the high level of numeracy demanded in the apprenticeship programs of the operating engineers, the plumbers, and the carpenters, to name just three crafts.

The mayor seems to reify the meaning of a diploma so that the physical possession of the document is thought to confer value on its owner. A diploma signifies value, however, only if it authentically attests to an understood level of skill and learning. The mayor misses the critical connection between what you learn and what you earn. At the heart of his argument seems to be a belief that if we gave a diploma to students who fail MCAS, their futures would somehow be transmogrified. Diploma or not, a student who lacks the skills required to pass MCAS confronts dismal employment prospects in the 21st century.

Earning trends in general don’t support the mayor’s argument. The gap between high school and four-year college graduates is widening, while the earning profile of those with associate’s degrees increasingly resembles that of high school graduates. More and more, the importance of a high school diploma is as a platform for post-secondary education, as Harvard economist Richard Murnane argues in his paper “Preparing Students to Thrive in the 21st-Century Economy.”

MCAS opponents have long blamed high dropout rates on the higher standards the test embodies. But even Mayor Lang indicates that fully 72 percent of high school seniors who drop out have already passed MCAS. The most recent report from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says the percentage of students who graduate from high school in four years rose in 2007.

When it comes to education reform, there is still much work to be done, and the climb gets steeper as we get closer to the summit. Clearly, eliminating the achievement gap between white and minority students tops the list of challenges that remain. The mayor points to lower MCAS pass rates for minorities and non-English speakers as proof that the test exacerbates that gap. But testing didn’t create these inequities, it simply exposed them. Without high-quality diagnostic data we can never truly close the achievement gap.

One way to help many of the students about whom the mayor writes is to restore funding for MCAS remediation, which has been cut dramatically in recent years. The funding would allow us to provide not just a triage system for the kids imminently at risk of failure, but to focus on younger children at a time when their educational problems could be readily addressed.

Massachusetts lacks natural resources; our economic competitiveness is uniquely dependent on an educated workforce. But MCAS and high academic standards speak to something even more important: preparing students from all backgrounds to function as active citizens in a democracy. Our success or failure in that endeavor goes to the very heart of who we are as a society.

Tom Birmingham is the former Senate President and co-author of the Education Reform Act of 1993. He is currently senior counsel at Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, LLP.

MCAS can evolve for a new era

By Nick Donohue

Massachusetts is rich in so many ways. It’s vibrant and diverse, with world-famous institutions and a storied history of improving the way many of its citizens live. That history is exemplified by the education reform movement launched more than 15 years ago. Driven by a true partnership between business, educators, and Beacon Hill, it was a bold initiative to secure a standards-based approach to learning as a way of educating our citizens in an equitable manner.

Following this approach, Massachusetts has moved to the head of the class on certain nationally calibrated measures of school success, such as the National Assessment of Education Progress. We have also seen an increase in MCAS scores for those who graduate from high school. However, roughly 20 percent of Massachusetts high school students do not graduate, and too few who do are prepared for higher learning. We also see too many teachers leaving the profession and higher turnover than ever among school officials. In short, we have made some progress through the implementation of MCAS, but we have much further to go.

Realizing the limits of our progress to date has brought us to an interesting crossroad in the debate over MCAS. There are a number of possible paths forward, each with a committed following. There are those who say “stay the course” with current reform efforts, including MCAS. The problem is, the “course” does not lead to the level of skills and knowledge that students will need to lead economically and civically engaged lives. Thanks to the progress of education reform, we have more people learning more, but without a sufficient number learning enough.

The achievement gap is narrowing slowly, but there is a “learning gap” that remains vast. This learning gap is the distance between achievement as defined by current standards and what is needed in order to succeed. This gap is real and is growing, and staying the course with MCAS will not close it. The standards that underpin MCAS and the current methods of assessing student learning were created to focus on bringing underperformers up to acceptable levels. Unfortunately, the floor has become the ceiling for the system in many respects.

There are those who would argue that we need to abandon MCAS, and what some see as narrow and restrictive standards, and put education “back in the hands of educators.” While we should certainly provide better support to our hard-working teachers, abandoning clear, high standards is unwise. If we aspire to the varied system necessary to meet the needs of a broad range of learners, then clear expectations are essential.

Some suggest accommodations to the current system. Mayor Lang says the debate over MCAS can be solved with a dual diploma system that recognizes success other than that defined by scores on the high-stakes test. His stance is not without its logic. Any review of what is necessary for life in the 21st century reveals an array of skills and knowledge that is not sufficiently measured by MCAS. However, this dual approach could lead to “dueling” systems, and a broader gap in achievement between the haves and have-nots.

What we need is an evolution to the type of comprehensive, flexible system that will educate the largest number of learners possible at the highest levels. Such an evolution will require the wisdom to accept worthy aspects of the current system; the humility to renovate the system for a new era; the vision to articulate the standards and types of student engagement that truly provide educational opportunity for all; and dynamic leadership that will fight for profound changes.

The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 actually can and should be the basis for this new system. The law is rooted in a commitment to standards, and defines an assessment system composed of a variety of instruments and methods that are sensitive to different learning styles and barriers to learning.

In McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, a case significantly linked to the development and adoption of education reform, the court held that an educated Massachusetts child would possess (among other capabilities): “sufficient knowledge of economic, social, and political systems…sufficient grounding in the arts to enable each student to appreciate his or her cultural and historical heritage…[and] sufficient training or preparations for advance training in either academic or vocational fields so as to enable each child to choose and pursue life work intelligently.”

To date, this type of system has not been fully constructed and implemented. We need a robust “system of assessment” as intended by the Education Reform Act, a system that may include an on-demand testing component such as MCAS, but also a broad variety of measurement tools more closely aligned with the breadth of revised learning goals and consistent with MCAS’s original purposes.

The new system must honor learning that is acquired in different settings and demonstrated in a wider variety of ways. We must increase the number of internships and other “applied learning opportunities.” For example, learners could receive partial credit in English for work at a local newspaper; high-tech work sites are similarly rich in opportunities to learn math and other sciences.

High standards must guide these efforts. Experienced teachers should vet these experiences, and classroom learning should complement and support these kinds of opportunities. If we want world-class thinkers and doers, we must have a system that asks learners to engage in and complete complex tasks that demonstrate competency in real-world contexts.

This will demand a change in how we regard accountability and delivery. Accountability should not be the sole burden of learners, but rather relate to outcomes that reflect a compact between learners, educators, and policymakers. These outcomes must be rooted in integrity of purpose and must receive sufficient support. If we acknowledge that outdated methods are destined to deliver modest results, we should honor our teachers by allowing them to apply their creativity. Holding educators responsible for teaching students how to fly but only allowing them to use vehicles that run on the ground is simply unfair.

Implementing this type of system would admittedly be a challenge, but one well worth it. High standards can be measured fairly and accurately using both a state-administered test and locally-controlled performance assessments. The on-demand test would need to be shorter and complemented by a rich, reliable, and valid way of measuring the complex features of student learning to which we aspire. A number of our neighbors in New England are wrestling with similar issues. Collaboration with other states on these issues will only help. We can and should work together.

Meet the Author

Tom Birmingham

Guest Contributor, Pioneer Institute
Meet the Author
We cannot mention this type of K-12 system without briefly discussing its implications for higher education. In order to make good on the promise provided by such a K-12 system, we must broaden the notion of postsecondary education to embrace a wider array of opportunities that still includes the gold ring of four-year degrees. We are capable of creating high quality, varied pathways — based on strong, varied standards — to guide learners to the bright futures they choose. Commitment to this type of alignment will allow Massachusetts to once again lead the world by redefining an accessible and high quality system of “higher learning.”

We have a responsibility to build on our creative and productive history, and take the lead in evolving education. A century ago we moved out of the one-room school house. The time has come to move beyond the well-intended, important foundation started with MCAS and toward a system that is aligned with both our current and future needs — one in which creativity, teachers, and students can all thrive.

Nick Donohue is president and chief executive of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and co-chair of the MCAS and Additional Assessment Subcommittee of Gov. Deval Patrick’s Readiness Project.