MCAS: Almost overnight it has become a household term in Massachusetts. Yet the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System remains misunderstood by many students, teachers, and parents. What, is the MCAS meant to do? What part should it play in the reform of public education in Massachusetts?

To begin with, the MCAS tests must be aligned with the Massachusetts curriculum frameworks on academic core subjects. The frameworks identify the essential knowledge and skills that every student in Massachusetts should acquire, and they define standards of achievement for various grade levels. As such, they form the base of a common body of learning in public schools across the state. But they are not a substitute for local curricula. Local schools and districts have authority and responsibility to design their programs of study; and it remains their prerogative to determine which framework topics should be studied in particular depth, and to include additional topics not covered in the frameworks.

Just as the frameworks are no substitute for local curricula, so the MCAS tests are no substitute for local assessments of student learning. Teachers can and must continue to give their own quizzes and tests, and to assign compositions, research projects, class demonstrations and performances that advance student learning and enable effective assessment. The school report card, with its grades and comments, should continue to be the summary statement of these assessments by teachers. The MCAS should not alter this.

The MCAS should ensure that the curriculum frameworks are implemented through local curricula and classroom instruction. In a good school, then, MCAS results should not lag behind report card grades. Students who are receiving As, or Bs, or Cs (or Ds or Fs) in a particular subject should score similarly on the MCAS exams–for the grades and the MCAS scores represent similar standards of achievement on content aligned with the frameworks. Lagging MCAS scores, in contrast, would suggest the frameworks have not been effectively implemented, or that local standards have been set too low. And in the very best schools, MCAS scores may even be higher than grades, because the MCAS standards may be lower than the school’s standards of achievement and grading.

Higher standards and stronger curricula will be of no avail, however, unless teachers are able to put them into practice. The frameworks and the MCAS exams are designed to guide and support the work of teachers, but they cannot take the place of that work. It is vital, then, that every child be taught by teachers who know their subjects and the best practices for teaching them.

We cannot expect every teacher to be outstanding, of course, any more than every lawyer or doctor or college professor. But every teacher must be fully competent–and the dismal results on the Massachusetts Educator Certification Tests give us reason to suspect not all are. Every teacher candidate taking that test had completed or nearly completed a teacher preparation program, and so in prior years would have routinely received initial certification, but over half of them, in the first administration of the MECT, failed either the test of literacy or of subject-matter knowledge, or both. The failure rate has diminished somewhat in subsequent administrations but remains shockingly high. The work of the Joint Commission on Educator Preparation should give rise to higher standards governing the education and certification of teachers, and, one would hope, suggest alternatives for qualifying teachers that will end the monopoly presently held by schools of education.

The curriculum frameworks, the MCAS exams, and the policies still in formation to elevate the quality of teachers–these are the three pillars of school reform in Massachusetts. Together they provide the necessary means for improving public education throughout the state. But the hard work of raising student achievement can only be done locally: in the individual school district, school, and classroom. Formal education succeeds or fails in the day-to-day interaction of teachers and students. Every reform at the state level should contribute to the effectiveness of that interaction.

What does all this imply, then, about the graduation requirement, beginning with the class of 2003, mandated by the Massachusetts Education Reform Act? The requirement to pass the 10th-grade MCAS exams is inextricably linked to the other elements of school reform, and so must be implemented in conjunction with them. We must make the curriculum framework for each subject stable (while still leaving room for continuing, small refinements); try out and refine the corresponding MCAS exam; and raise the quality of instruction over time. Accordingly, the state Board of Education is phasing in the requirement that high school graduates pass the 10th-grade MCAS exams, beginning with English and Mathematics. The passing grade is to be gradually raised, and the number of subjects tested gradually increased, until we can finally say with confidence: A diploma from any high school in Massachusetts is a true indication of academic achievement in every core subject.

We must be wary, though, of any measure, however well-intentioned, that falls short of that goal. One such measure, of which Rennie and Reville approve, is the Board of Education’s initial setting of the passing grade for the 10th-grade tests at the lowest point above “Failing.” Thus, the Commonwealth is prepared to grant a high-school diploma to students whose performance, as certified by their MCAS scores, “Needs Improvement.” This is giving up the battle for high standards before it is joined. If 10th-grade students are given a pass and a high-school diploma on the basis of a standard which the Department of Education defines as a high “F,” they will have no incentive for making that improvement in the 11th and 12th grades. We must resist this and any other temptation to fudge the meaning of a passing grade in order to give fraudulent diplomas to ill-prepared students.

While it may be permissible in the first few years to make only certain subjects, such as English and Mathematics, the focus of high-stakes testing, we must not ultimately settle for a system in which a student can fail one MCAS exam yet still receive a diploma, as Rennie and Reville propose. Just as any reputable college requires every graduate to satisfy all of its requirements–which often include the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences, the Humanities, Mathematics, and English composition–so, too, should we require high school graduates to pass each MCAS exam. No diploma should be granted for “Failure” in any core subject.

For all too long we have lowered standards to match poor performance. Our task now is to raise performance and achievement to match high standards.

Edwin Delattre is dean of the School of Education at Boston University and a member of the state Board of Education. BU Chancellor John Silber is former chairman of the state Board of Education.

Graduation standards must apply to all

by William H. Guenther
Winter 2000
T he Education Reform Act of 1993 is working. We are raising standards in Massachusetts public schools to make our children the best prepared in the nation. Schools across Massachusetts–and in other states where standards and serious accountability measures have been introduced–are focused on student achievement with unprecedented intensity. Political leaders and schools are taking new, difficult, and sometimes expensive steps. Why now?

In the past, for too many kids and for their parents, the game we played was “Let’s Pretend.” All of us were part of this corrupt bargain. Not just schools, but parents, political leaders, and the larger community were part of the deal. If you showed up at school–and sometimes even if you didn’t–we gave you a high school diploma. But we wouldn’t guarantee its value.

We couldn’t tell you the truth in high school: that you might not have the skills for a good job. Instead, we left it to Massachusetts companies like Bell Atlantic or Gorton’s, or American Saw & Manufacturing, or the Armed Services, to give you the bad news. In many cases, 50 percent of you who applied for these jobs out of high school failed the companies’ standard elementary-school-level Math and English entry tests. If you went on to higher education, we left it to colleges to tell you, through their freshman placement tests, that you might be starting out behind, that the Bs and Cs you earned in high school didn’t mean you had the skills to get into higher-level college courses.

The fact is, we had state tests in Massachusetts for 10 years prior to the MCAS tests. They were rigorous and produced the same disappointing results we have seen on the MCAS tests. Did anyone pay attention? It seems not. There were no significant mandatory summer-school programs and no widespread weekend and after-school tutoring sessions in 1990. Schools across the state did not upgrade their curricula to respond to the continuing pleas from colleges for better prepared freshman.

Why are we taking actions across the state today that weren’t taken a decade ago? What has drawn the attention not only of schools, but of parents, who need to play a critical role in raising student performance?

The answer is clear: We now have academic standards reflected in tests that will count–for school districts and for students. Schools will continue to have their own additional graduation requirements, not least for work in the 11th and 12th grades. But we have set one minimum standard for all students in Massachusetts, no matter where they live, who they are, or what their family situation is.

After the first MCAS tests were introduced in 1998, change in schools accelerated. Some schools panicked and tried short-term test preparation as a substitute for the tougher process of improving instruction. But like the Advanced Placement tests or the New York State Regents exams, the MCAS tests require students to think and write out their answers. They don’t lend themselves to coaching; they demand good teaching and hard work.

So, with a test worth teaching to, and substantial consensus around the English and Math curriculum, we are faced with the most controversial step in the process: high stakes for students. There are legitimate worries–about higher drop-out rates, and about the kids who stay in school but fail the 10th grade tests repeatedly. Shouldn’t we keep part of the old bargain alive, just in case?

Jack Rennie and Paul Reville, without whom Massachusetts would not have made a commitment to real reform in 1993, have once again pushed us to focus on the critical issues at hand. They have made a series of reasonable suggestions. I part company with them on only one, but that one is central to maintaining the equity and leverage that statewide standards and high stakes have produced.

They suggest that, in anticipation of high failure rates when high stakes are first applied, school districts should be temporarily allowed to award local diplomas to students who have failed the 10th grade English or Math exit exams three times. The superintendents of the two largest urban school districts in Massachusetts, Tom Payzant in Boston and Peter Negroni in Springfield, disagree. They understand that if we open this door to nowhere, we are simply perpetuating the old corrupt bargain for more years and more kids–and we risk never being able to close that door in the future.

How have we helped the students without skills in English and Math by giving them a second-class local diploma that implies they have basic skills in these subjects when they don’t? This makes explicit the double standard we have implicitly accepted in the past, and eliminates much of the pressure to solve the real problem at hand: helping every child develop the skills they need to succeed in today’s world.

Local diplomas have been the coin of the realm. They have been devalued. We must exchange the old currency for a new one and give it the credibility it deserves.

Rennie and Reville are right to argue that we should think today about the students who may fail tomorrow. The first goal is to help all students graduate on schedule. Schools are taking important, but not yet sufficient, steps to offer programs for students at risk; the state Legislature has for the second year appropriated $20 million for this purpose.

However, the state and school districts together need to make a clear commitment to students who may not graduate on schedule. We need far more information on what works for these young adults. And we need to launch new initiatives with partners outside the schools, such as the community colleges. This is an issue that confronts suburban schools as well as urban schools. These students are not one group; different needs will demand different remedies.

The MCAS test scores released in December were disappointing, but there is visible evidence of change in schools across the state. Standards and tests with consequences will improve schools and make students better prepared. They cannot do so without setting one minimum graduation standard that will keep the pressure on everyone–schools, students, parents, and the larger community–to invest in solutions. We can’t pretend any longer that the problem doesn’t exist.

William H. Guenther is president of Mass Insight Education, an independent nonprofit corporation that works with schools and communities to raise student achievement.

Delays won’t solve problems of the test

by Karen Hartke and Monty Neill
Winter 2000

FairTest shares the educational goal of Jack Rennie and Paul Reville: the realization of “the dream of a school system which would deliver quality education to each and every child.” We, too, recognize that large numbers of students are likely to fail the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System graduation test and be unfairly denied important life opportunities, precisely because many children lack access to high-quality education. Massive test failure will tend to exacerbate public frustration with an educational system which failed to live up to its own standards before placing the “full weight of accountability” upon students.

However, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education’s solution to this impending crisis–to create a process for the “transition to high stakes”–will not lead to the goal they want-delivery of “quality education to each and every child.” Rennie and Reville merely propose to adjust the timing and sequencing of standards and high stakes tests.

These changes fail to address the real problems. Reliance on MCAS will undermine, not strengthen, efforts to provide authentic reform in education, particularly for low-income students, students of color, recent immigrants, and students with disabilities. Rather than raise achievement for all students, this narrow approach to accountability will increase the gap in opportunity and performance between groups of students, while also resulting in higher grade-retention and dropout rates. Further, the MBAE’s proposal for a multi-tiered diploma will only ratify the very inequities that have led Rennie and Reville to propose their temporary changes to the graduation tests.

In many schools, test-driven “reform” will increasingly damage the quality of teaching and learning; in others it will stifle attempts at true reform. These problems stem from the inadequacy of the test and from using a single instrument to make high-stakes decisions. The MCAS tests may be difficult, but they are not intellectually rigorous. They neither measure nor embody a rich, engaging curriculum. Reliance on the test to make important decisions or to use it to control curriculum and instruction will force schools to teach to an impoverished vision of education.

The primary purpose of a state accountability system should be to assist schools to improve the quality of learning for all students, to hold schools responsible for desired results, and to assist in determining whether students have mastery of an essential set of knowledge, skills, and habits of mind. The MCAS is being misused for high-stakes decisions. No one test should act as a sole determinant for deciding whether a student graduates from high school. The Education Reform Act specifically called for the state to create a multi-layered assessment system that includes local as well as state assessments.

To address the problems caused by MCAS and to promote genuine accountability, FairTest has worked with the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education to outline an alternative program. This accountability plan preserves a focus on high standards for all students and public accountability for all schools, while also promoting genuine reform in teaching and learning in all schools and classrooms.

1) Local assessments governed by broad state competencies. CARE supports an assessment system in which schools, rather than the state, determine graduation requirements. Each school in the Commonwealth would develop its own accountability and assessment plan. It would outline how students will demonstrate that they have mastered the Common Core of Learning, as well as specify the curriculum, instructional approaches, and authentic assessment measures the school will use. Each school would submit its accountability plan to a regional board, established by the state Department of Education, for review and approval.

2) School quality reviews. All schools would be reviewed for quality on a three-to-five-year cycle. A key goal of the reviews is to ensure that the school provides equitable resources and high-quality learning opportunities to its students and is working to improve the achievement of all students. A school selected for review would engage in a self-study, leading to the creation of a school portfolio. A team of practitioners from other districts would then spend three or four days collecting evidence to determine whether the school is making progress toward meeting its benchmarks. The review team would provide the school with oral and written feedback, including recommendations. A school failing to reach its goals would be placed on a one-year follow-up review cycle, with further intervention required if the school still did not make progress.

3) Limited standardized testing focused solely on literacy and numeracy. A limited amount of standardized testing could provide an additional source of information. Such tests should not have high stakes attached to them, should be brief, and should assess only literacy and numeracy.

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4) Required annual school reports. The state should develop a list of indicators that every school and district must annually report to its respective community, including outcomes of students by race, gender, low-income status, special needs, and limited English proficiency. These reports would be based on information derived from the local assessment process, school quality reviews, and limited standardized testing described above.

While preserving a focus on high standards for all students and public accountability for all schools, this system of genuine accountability also encourages and promotes local innovation, creativity, freedom, and democracy. Such a multi-layered assessment actually promotes greater public accountability than the single paper-and-pencil MCAS, as it builds in multiple means of evaluating a school’s performance. The MBAE proposal, by contrast, reinforces the dangerous mistakes of the test-driven approach to reform.

Karen Hartke is assessment reform advocate and Monty Neill is executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Cambridge.