By STEVE RIVKIN and CATHERINE SANDERSON
Published on October 09, 2009
The now annual autumn ritual of the release of MCAS results and classification of schools as either meeting or failing to meet the standards set by No Child Left Behind leads parents, teachers, and administrators to reflect on the value of standardized testing.
These tests provide an objective way to measure student knowledge of various disciplines as well as a way to evaluate the effectiveness of our schools in comparison to other districts. In addition, more detailed results on specific test items can reveal curricular areas in need of attention. The MCAS tests also provide important information about differences by income, race, ethnicity, English language proficiency and special needs. The substantial share of low-income students at all of our schools who failed to pass the MCAS math and English language arts tests sends an unambiguous message that we have much work to do to meet our goals of educational success for all students and the elimination of the achievement gap by family income.
Although we believe that the evidence provided by standardized testing has great value in these respects, we also recognize the limitations, and even liabilities, of such data. One problem with the current federal use of MCAS scores is that schools are labeled as failures or successes solely on the basis of whether the pass rate exceeds a standard established by the state. This year more than 85 percent of students in all four Amherst elementary schools passed the English language arts and mathematics tests, but in some cases the pass rates fell short of the standard. Thus, three of the four schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in mathematics (only Mark's Meadow showed sufficient progress) and two of the four schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in English language arts (only Fort River and Wildwood showed sufficient progress). NCLB's focus on the pass rate alone ignores the reality that some students could have passed a test administered on the first day of the school year, whereas others began the year so far behind that they were likely to fail the test even if they made excellent progress.
Another problem with the use of MCAS scores is that the desire to meet the standard can tempt schools to focus narrowly on tested material in ways that compromise the richness, depth and breadth of the curriculum. For example, schools may cut back on the arts, physical education, social studies, world language or science, since these areas are either not tested at all (in the case of the arts, physical education and world language) or are tested only in later grades (in the case of social studies and science).
In some cases, even the mathematics and English language arts curricula may be compromised, and schools may be tempted to teach to the test or even design student-specific programs based on the precise test questions answered incorrectly. We believe that comprehensive curricular reviews and coherent, educationally appropriate changes constitute a much more productive response to low test scores than piecemeal adjustments designed to push individual students over the passing threshold.
The failure of all of our schools to meet passing thresholds in all subjects and the high rates of failure among our low income students sends a strong signal that our schools have much work to do. We are pleased that Superintendent Rodriguez has committed to work this year on goals that should make a real difference in our elementary schools: creating an aligned, engaging and challenging elementary school curriculum, conducting a rigorous evaluation of the elementary school mathematics curriculum, and developing and implementing a plan to provide academic support for struggling students. We believe these goals illustrate a comprehensive approach for improving the quality of education in our schools and expect that next year's MCAS tests will provide good measures of the success of these and other such efforts.
Steve Rivkin and Catherine Sanderson are Amherst College professors and members of the Amherst School Committee.
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.