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To Test or Not to Test

There has been a lot of debate on the issue of high-stakes testing that determines whether a student will be able to graduate high school and whether schools will be taken over by the state. In Massachusetts, this centers on MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), which was set up in response to the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. Since the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, similar assessment systems have been established nationwide.

The goals of the assessment system are laudable. Most observers agree that the public schools, particularly those in poor urban areas, have a history of failing their students. And it seems obvious to me that if a student cannot pass a fair test of basic skills, there is something wrong. I do not support granting diplomas to students who lack the most basic skills.

But as currently implemented there are big problems with MCAS. The importance of this test to schools has severely distorted priorities.

If a school is facing penalties unless they raise their MCAS scores, there is a tremendous incentive to transfer resources to those students who score in the lower ranks. There is no incentive to help student who are already scoring excellent.

Benefits for those students who MCAS and NCLB were designed to help are not clear either. High school drop out rates are up and anecdotal evidence as well as logic indicates that students who cannot pass MCAS after several tries are more likely to drop out. And since average scores will go up as more of these students drop out, schools have a disincentive to retain these students.

A personal communication by a community college science teacher reveals that most graduates of the Boston public schools who attend this community college place into a basic math course which begins at the third grade level. I asked how this could be possible, since these students have all passed the 10th grade Mathematics MCAS, which I regard as a reasonable test of high school math knowledge. The teacher replied,
... students who fail the MCAS tests are put into intensive "MCAS prep" programs. These are designed for one purpose only -- to get them past the test. I. e. it is "teaching to the test" in its purest form. Many students are indeed then able to pass the MCAS math test, and still be grossly deficient in math skills.

I think the problem is analogous to that of car manufacturers that seek to improve the quality of their product. One way to improve quality is to devote more resources to inspecting the final product. A better way is to do what the Japanese have done and improve the process of car production. There will still be final inspections, but less defects will be found. In the same way, improvement in education must precede the institution of high-stakes testing.

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