Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Problem With the MCAS

A Boston charter school is about to go the way of the Dodo, but I don't really care about that. (I'm not a fan of charter schools). However, reading the story triggered an even bigger concern. Just read this:

Driscoll recommended closing Uphams Corner based on the school's record during the past five years. Though a state inspection team found improvements over the past year in student behavior and classroom instruction, MCAS scores remain low. For the first four years, many classes lacked rigor, and teachers didn't teach a curriculum that was aligned with the state's academic standards.

Because teachers didn't teach to the test, somehow they didn't meet this state's "academic standars." I have a new proposal for the State's Board of Education. Why don't we just hire out Kaplan to teach all our students to pass the MCAS. It'll probably be close to a 100% graduation rate. Sure, we'll be pushing forward dumb shits and be far worse for it, but they'll pass the MCAS! Yay!

The MCAS, at this moment, is a measure of one thing for 80-90% of students: socio-economic levels. People from stable, upper-middle class backgrounds will tend to do well on the exam. Students from poor, broken families probably won't. Is the MCAS a measure of their intelligence? No, it's a measure of their stability. It's a measure of how strongly their parents distilled a need in their children for academic achievement - or even merely intellectual curiousity. It's a measure of how much crap's going on at home.

The thing about schools in Massachusetts is that you could take all the best teachers from Lynnfield, MASCO, Swampscott, Marblehead... and stick them in Lynn English and the kids from English won't do much better. Why? It isn't that the teachers in Lynnfield and Swampscott are so out-of-this-world fantastic, or that the teachers from Lynn are craptastic, it's that the people learning in Lynn either don't have the same familial expectations or are going through very difficult domestic situations and aren't getting the same kind of support. If people have a single parent, in and out of work and addicted to drugs - the achievement isn't passing the MCAS, the achievement is going to school 5 days a week.

All that said, I'm not against a test people must pass to graduate. However, the test needs to be completely different. The current exam doesn't really ask people to show what they learned; it's a test geared toward people who have learned how to 'beat' it - just like the SAT or any other mainly multiple-choice standardized test. Exams should make people show what they learned - be it either a portfolio project to be presented at the end of the year to a school's administration or an open-ended MCAS that doesn't have random question #2234o8343 on it, but a test that asks basic questions and looks for coherent answers using knowledge people have learned from their class.

At the very least, if the state wants to have the MCAS as it's currently formatted, it needs to invest the kind of money in the kind of places that will give everyone the support they need to pass. The kind of help necessary extends far beyond dollars invested in the educational system and includes things like health insurance, day care (for parents that would otherwise make their own children watch their kids), drug rehabilitation, etc. The problems that the MCAS reveals aren't usually indicative of what's going on at school and much more likely to be what's going on at home. Until those problems are addressed, we can throw tens of billions of dollars more into k-12 and it won't make a difference.


Anonymous said...

Why don't we just hire out Kaplan to teach all our students to pass the MCAS


The problem with NCLB is that is drains resources away from those who need it most. tEachers hate it and not because they're evil, because it makes the problem worse. MCAS is only part of the problem. NCLB is basically a backdoor attempt to destroy public ed and leave kids and parents to fend for themselves in the marketplace, where rich kids buy decent educations and poor kids clean their schools. See what connections you can make at Frito-Lay's Charter School, Our Lady of Corn Chip Pie.

Ryan Adams said...

An alternate interpretation is it's an attempt to "starve the beast." By spending a lot, very innefficiently, you can say later "we can't afford this and it's not working great anyway," but by "this" mean most of what we consider public education.

Peter Porcupine said...

Ryan - what he said was standard CURRICULUM. Not the test.

I'll give you an example from 14 years ago - a 9th grader takes history, and studies the Civil War. Moves, new 10th grade history class, and studies - the Civil War. Moves again, new 11th grade history class, and studies - the Civil War. Before the curriculum framework, some schools first taught world history, and then American, and then Civil, and then Revolutionary. Other systems reveresed that order. So a kid who moved could take the same thing over and over.

Now, with the statewide curriculum framework, the ORDER in which subjects are taught has been standardized, and all 9th, 10th, and 11th grade kids are studying the same subject at the same time. Which is why it is IMPORTANT for a school to adhere to the framework.

This isn't about teaching to the test, it's about providing educational continuity. Which the teacher's unions fought tooth and nail at the time, BTW, as an intrusion on their God-given right to decide their OWN curriculum.

Ryan Adams said...

I fail to see the importance of teaching the same curriculi. Students rarely move, then move, then move all in the same year. Furthermore, students should be able to learn aspects of history they enjoy. If someone wants to learn about China in detail, why shouldn't they? That's why standardized curriculi doesn't work.

Having been very involved with the development of the MCAS when I served on the State Student Advisory Council to the Board of Education as a Chair of a Committee and Executive Board Member, I heard a lot of different reasons for the need to have the MCAS. Students moving again and agani and again wasn't one of them. It's a concern that teachers in an individual school can deal with at an individual level.

Anonymous said...

Teaching should be standardized in grade school and high school. If students want to "specialize" in China, go to college. We must be doing something wrong in our teaching system when in an objective subject like math we're constantly behind other countries scores.

Anonymous said...

pssh, ppl from you so called "broken" homes or "poor" families can still do perfectly well on MCAS. I was raised by a single mom who doesn't make that much money at all, in fact, she's disabled and we get about $1000 a month to live off of and in 7th grade I scored 6 points off from a perfect score. It's about how serious kids take the tests, whether or not the teachers teach them what they need to know for the tests, and whether or not the kids actually understand what the questions are asking. It's unfair of you to say that poor people are going to do bad on MCAS because they're poor, it's just not true.

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