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Opposing the Governor, the Department of Education, Many Businessmen, The Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, President Bush, Secretary Paige. . . .

Publication Date: 2003-09-15

Even though this amendment didn't pass, the speech is stirring--and worth reading for the list of groups for and against high-stakes testing. It has relevance far beyond Massachusetts.

Rep. Frank I. Smizik -
Remarks In Support Of Amendment #898 To Postpone MCAS

House of Representatives, May 6, 2003

Being against the MCAS graduation requirement means that I am opposing the Governor, the Board of Education, the Department of Education, many business leaders, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, President Bush, the US Secretary of Education Paige and the entire national network of standards-based advocates, including local representatives such as Mass Inc., Mass Insight and the Pioneer Institute.

Being against the MCAS graduation requirement means that I am on the same side as a majority of school parents, a vast majority of teachers, the majority of Massachusetts school committees, the majority of Massachusetts school superintendents, parent and citizen groups such as Citizens for Public Schools, as well as respected educators such as Deborah Meier. I feel very comfortable in this company.

The use of MCAS as a graduation requirement is a product of the Board of Education and the Governor, not this legislature. In fact, the law passed by the Legislature in 1993 as part of the Education Reform Act calls for multiple means of assessment. That legislative intent has been subverted because the national standards-based movement has found friends in charge in Massachusetts.

While I oppose the use of the MCAS test for high stakes purposes. I support high quality education. I want quality education not only for the school system I represent, but also for the children of all school districts in this Commonwealth. The difference I have with standards-based education is that it does not encourage individuality; good creative teaching is stymied; and reaching every child is not a goal (10,000 children were left behind in the first round, down to 6,000 now after mind-numbing retests and test prep). Given these figures, it is questionable what high standards mean.

Children learn in different ways. Perhaps a teacher's hardest job is to reach the difficult child, the student who may have trouble memorizing facts and figures that seem irrelevant to their world, who questions why she needs to know about Napoleon's conquest of Austria in 1800. How does a teacher finally get this child to enjoy reading or to have a basic grasp of math, science and history? It has nothing to do with MCAS. This will only happen if that child has a teacher capable and creative enough to find what drives this child and knows how to inspire and teach that child to be a life-long learner. That will happen if the teacher is well-trained and has a small sized class. Unfortunately, in this very budget before us today, we are cutting funding for teacher development and we provide no funding to reduce class size.

It is important for children to get a larger view of the world and find things that interest them. A child might be able to play a musical instrument, or have a keen eye for art or drawing; or be a good athlete. Given the opportunity, if that child becomes good at something they care about, it will help him/her become a better student in other areas as well. But, if those so-called "extras" are not available at a school, that child may never gain the confidence and discipline needed to succeed. Unfortunately, in the standards-based environment, because the test is the key to everything, and all else is secondary, the first things cut from the budget are music, the arts, athletic programs, leaving the student who is looking for an outlet unable to make a connection and often, withdrawing from the educational environment.

I was on the School Committee of a district where teaching to the test is not acceptable. The emphasis is on having every child reach his or her potential and not on how to take a standardized test. Children must be given the freedom, within a framework of course, to show what they can do. That is very different from the current standards-based environment. The MCAS test and test prep take away valuable time that a teacher needs to teach a subject in depth.

Now these same children whose education is not test-driven, in fact, do well on the MCAS test because the teachers are focusing strongly on the child and how that child develops as a student. They are not focusing on whether that child does well on a standardized test, but rather, on whether that child becomes a life long learner as well as a good citizen. This is what our best school districts do. There are some wonderful public schools systems in Massachusetts and the MCAS plays little, if any, role in whether children in these districts learn any better.

Unfortunately, the state is heavily invested in the present MCAS system. They have undertaken a major public relations campaign to make the public believe that education is better with the MCAS graduation requirement. During this fiscal year, at a time of unprecedented fiscal problems, the state signed a $300,000 contract with Mass Insight to promote the MCAS and to hold forums where all of the speakers are pro -MCAS. They work closely with the Pioneer Institute. It is very difficult to hear the other side, the side of parents and teachers and their concern about the MCAS and high stakes testing. The legislature and the public are not being told the whole story.

I have in my hand a lip balm with the word "MCAS" emblazoned on the outside as well as the words "Department of Education". Is this a good expenditure of public money? Does this show an open-mindedness to comply with the Education Reform Act's intention of having multiple forms of assessment? I think not.

What does my amendment do: first, it would require the postponement of the MCAS tests in all grades during the 2003-2004 school year and place a moratorium on using the MCAS as a graduation requirement for two years. This will save the state over $28 million and save our local school districts many more millions; second, my amendment would leave $880,000 in the DOE budget to develop a system of multiple assessments, as is required under the Education Reform law, but which has never been done. Third, the amendment takes the $28 million dollars in savings from MCAS and puts it into a proven educational program, reducing class size, which otherwise will be funded in this budget at zero.

Under the present system, our schools and the Department of Education have become punitive, practicing "tough love", rather than being encouraging and positive. As a result, we saw over 10,000 children fail the MCAS test. While this number has been reduced to about 6000 by a series of appeals and retests, it is ironic that the retests are much easier, defeating the purpose of our so-called "high standards". It cannot be acceptable that 6,000 children cannot receive a high school diploma, even though they may have completed the requirements of their local district. It cannot be acceptable that 6000 students will be prohibited from furthering their education by attending state colleges or our public university. It is wrong to limit the life choices of these students based upon one test.

The standards that have been implemented have only been in effect for a short period of time. Even under the best of circumstances, the students would have had, at most, six years of study under the new standards. The vast majority of students who are required to pass the MCAS to receive a diploma in 2003 have been taught following a curriculum that meets the new standards for less than half of their time in school.

The results of the MCAS have consistently shown that family income is the most important determination of how students will do on the test. Even with the increased education funds to our schools as a result of the Education Reform Law, there is not a level playing field for our poor and minority students.

This is one of the first debates we have ever had in the House on the MCAS. It is coming at a time when the budget is in deficit and our schools are being cut up to 20%. There will be terrible cutbacks in valuable classes and programs and class size will increase. Teachers, school nurses, and social workers will be eliminated. The learning atmosphere will not be as good as it should be. Many special needs students will not be able to receive the help they need. Students and teachers alike will be frustrated by the limitations placed upon them by limited resources. But we will have the MCAS graduation requirement because, in the minds of those now in control of our education policy, that is good education. We must give control of our public schools to those who should have had it all along: parents, educators and our publicly accountable school committees. We must move education toward a child-oriented educational system and reject the current standards-based system.

Trying to improve education by testing is like trying to fatten a cow by weighing it. Your children and mine deserve better.


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