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MCAS Snow Job

Posted: 2003-04-17

Some reporters thought that the MCAS snafu over asking 4th graders to write about what they did on a snow day was funny. "Fluke Flake" ran a Boston Herald headline. In a Boston Globeeditorial column titled "MCAS Snow Job," Joan Vennochi took the matter very seriously, showing a respect for children absent in other coverage. Vennochi takes MCAS question writers to task for presuming that a day off from school is "wonderful" for everybody, wonderful enough to write about.

NOTE: Below Venocchi's commentary, the New York Times version has a revealing comment by Massachusetts State Education Department spokesperson, Heidi Perlman.

MCAS Snow Job

Joan Vennochi

HERE IS A QUESTION for creators of the recent MCAS composition question for fourth-graders: Are you absolutely certain that a snow day is a magical moment for every public school child taking the test?

The essay question asked children to imagine ''a dream come true'' - that school had been called off because of snow. Children were instructed to ''give enough details in your story to show what you did and how wonderful the day was.''

Some school officials challenged the question on the grounds that schools had not been closed because of snowy weather in several years. Plenty of snow fell this past winter, but school was not called off because of it. In Watertown, for example, school administrators pointed out that fourth-graders would have to recall a snow day from kindergarten.

As a result of complaints such as those, state education officials are giving schools the option to administer makeup tests on May 8 ''if your schools had no cancellations this year due to snow.'' Principals also have the option to administer makeup tests to individual students who arrived in Massachusetts this school year and never experienced a day off from school due to snow.

But the problem with the question is more complicated than whether children can recall snow days from several years past. The deeper problem is whether a snow day is a universal writing prompt for remembering Currier & Ives moments that would inspire an essay about ''how wonderful the day was.''

Sure, children cheer any day off from school. But on snow days, not everyone is home sipping hot chocolate made by mom, sledding with friends, then warming icy toes in front of the fireplace. Kids may be in day care or fending for themselves alone at home. Instead of making snow angels, they are watching Nickelodeon all day - or MTV. Other children are immigrants from countries where it never snows, so the entire concept of a snow day is foreign.

In short, this MCAS question presupposes a fairy tale scenario that may be far from a child's home life reality. In doing so, it demonstrates the kind of cultural bias that critics have long cited as reason to oppose such tests. As this latest MCAS controversy illustrates, the debate is not as stark as whether one is for or against standards. It is more subtle: In a multicultural society, whose standards apply?

Even though greater effort is made to recognize diversity, mainstream culture still rules. Behind every complaint about an MCAS question like the one given this year to fourth-graders are more parents who complain about the unfairness of making their child retake the test.

A suit brought by eight high school seniors who are challenging the state for making MCAS passage a requirement for graduation is moving forward. But for now, these tests are not going away.

Sometimes I wish I could feel more passionately in favor of them. But MCAS results have not told me anything I did not already know about my own children as students or about the education they are receiving. When I consider what would make a positive difference in their education, or to any child's school experience, I do not think about tests. I think about newer textbooks, smaller classes, more modern, updated facilities, greater access to technology, and, of course, a connection with energetic, caring, creative teachers.

Those are all taken for granted in private schools, where students are not required to take the MCAS. A quality education is presumed in a private school setting for a very simple reason. Parents pay huge sums of money to guarantee their children access to committed teachers, small classes, state-of-the-art technology, and spectacular, endowment-funded facilities.

Meanwhile, public school children can look forward to state budget cuts that will increase class size, reduce the number of younger teachers and eliminate school building and improvement programs.

Maybe for the MCAS retest, there should be an essay question that asks students to explain how budget cuts affect their school.

The question, which would test math skills as well as language arts: How do you get more with less?

Then the MCAS creators, not just the students, should answer it.

In an unsigned item in the New York Times, we learn that the Boston authorities didn't consider snow important. They insist that writing is contentless. It's the grammar and spelling, stupid.

When a Snow Day Is More Than Just Play
April 17, 2003

BOSTON, April 16 ? Many fourth graders at Hernandez Elementary School here do not remember what they did on their last snow day, which was two years ago. Others like Gabriel Prado, 10, remember just the painful parts, like being hit by a snowball thrown by his older brother.

Although the students cross their fingers and hope for the big morning announcement every time the sky becomes gray, two years, they say, is a long time to think back on their last lucky break. And that has become a problem for the students, who have to retake part of the state's standardized test.

A question on the fourth-grade writing section of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, which all the state's fourth graders took on Thursday, asked them to imagine waking up to their "dream come true," school being canceled because of a snowstorm. Students were asked to "write a story about a snow day off from school that you remember."

It has been years since many Massachusetts school districts, including Boston, have canceled school because of inclement weather. Although heavy snow fell this winter, almost all of it was on weekends or vacations.

Many students, educators said, have no idea what a snow day is. That is especially true in urban districts, they say, where many students have emigrated from countries with warm climates. Urban students are also at a disadvantage because they, unlike their suburban counterparts, often do not "have mom at home to do activities with" and often just watch television, said Margarita Muniz, principal at Hernandez Elementary, a bilingual school that teaches primarily in English.

Wilfredo T. Laboy, superintendent of the Lawrence district, which is 89 percent Spanish speaking, said: "I believe it is culturally biased. For kids from Santo Domingo, Southeast Asia or other warm climates, what do they say about snow?"

A spokeswoman for the State Education Department, Heidi Perlman, said the question went through a rigorous evaluation, including passage before a bias review committee. The department, Ms. Perlman said, did not consider that some students might not know what a snow day is. But after some parents called, the department decided to give principals at schools that did not have snow days the option of re-administering the test on May 8. The principals also have the option of giving the test to individual students who might have been at a disadvantage because they recently arrived from a warmer climate.

The question, which, on its face, seemed "harmless enough," Ms. Perlman said, and was meant just to judge writing ability.

"It's entirely a question to judge how well a student can write," she said. "If a student can write an essay about watching TV, that's fine. It's looking at their grammar, their spelling and their writing. It's not about the content."

Boston is the sole district that requires all fourth graders ? almost 5,000 ? to retake the test, said Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the Boston Public Schools. He said the district wanted to give all students the same opportunity to do well.

Thomas Potter, superintendent of the Central Berkshire district in western Massachusetts, canceled school once this year. Mr. Potter can understand why some parents might be suspicious about the question if their children had not had snow days, but said most students in the state could imagine what a snow day would be like.

"I don't think it's culturally biased at all," Mr. Potter said.

Rebecca Jackson, 10, from Hernandez Elementary, said the test was "sort of hard" because she "knows what I do on snow days, but not on particular snow days." She wrote about "three things I like to do when it snows: ice skating, forts and sledding."

Victor Mejia, 9, said he thought that the question was not fair because some students like him had trouble remembering what occurred two years ago, a long, long time in a fourth grader's world. But Kevin Vega, 10, said it was not difficult for him to remember the shiny sled that he used with his family.

"Some of us can't forget that day," Kevin said.

When asked whether they wanted to retake the test, class members screeched a high-pitched drawn-out, "Nooooo!"

"Does this mean we have to take the MCAS again?" Gabriel asked. "I don't want to. It was annoying enough the first time."

And if you just can't get enough about this story, here's the Boston Herald account:


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