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Superintendent says MCAS diminishes student achievement

Ohanian Comment: Here's more in the corporate-politico injunction that You can never be good enough. Kudos to
Superintendent of Schools Roy E. Belson for speaking out about the MCAS Emperor, pointing out that MCAS standards have diminished student achievement.

By Matthew Keough/ mkeough@cnc.com

The results are in and once again school officials are saying that while tests show improvement on a district-wide level, the ever increasing MCAS standards are causing Medford to lag behind - at least on paper.

For grades three to eight in Medford, the majority of students taking the MCAS achieved either proficient or advanced scores in the English Language Arts section of the test, with district scores either closely matching or in some cases, surpassing the state averages.

For mathematics, students beat the state average over all, but in both cases, Superintendent of Schools Roy E. Belson said MCAS standards have diminished student achievement.

"If you go around the state, youíll see that people do better or worse depending on their city," Belson said, adding that many cities, like Medford, were crippled by low scores within subgroups such as foreign language speaking students.

"Look at the subgroups - communities with larger subgroups will have a difficult time," Belson said. "And weíve got em all. Theyíre not moving fast enough to keep up with the annual yearly progress demanded by No Child Left Behind."

While MCAS is meant to improve student scores year by year, Belson said the ever-tightening standards means that students who have shown improvement often fall short.

"If you look at math, grades six to eight, every subgroup improved, but in some instances, because they didnít approve at a fast enough rate, they donít qualify for AYP," Belson said. "Weíre showing improvement, but how fast can it take place?"

Belson said enabling teachers to help students improve their MCAS scores has become something of a catch-22 as a result of diminishing funds.

"Itís more difficult as class sizes have gone up," Belson said. "Itís certainly not advantageous to be working with less resources. People talk about extending the school day, but not with these resources. Weíre just taking on more responsibility with less resources, thatís not a recipe for success."

Belson said the results that are coming out point to a flaw in the MCAS system: schools rather than students, are being judged on achievement.

"AYP asks how a school is doing," Belson said. "We want to know how the student is doing. Letís not measure grade against grade, letís focus on a kidís education through the years."

Saying that it may take time to rethink the MCAS system, Belson added that the tests themselves may not getting students ready for a career in the real world.

"Are we preparing kids for 21 century or someoneís idea of the past with these pencil and paper tests?" Belson said. "We canít let these tests define the whole paradigm. To educate the whole child, it will take a lot more than just texts."

Belson, along with assistant superintendents Beverly Nelson and Arthur Swanson, said their teaching staff is also underserved by MCAS results.

"Itís discouraging, because we feel overall our faculty does a good job, but itís like anything else. You pitch a great game, you can still lose," Belson said. "Any scoring system puts people at wins and losses. Weíre doing some really good things, but the system is not going to allow those good things to be recognized."

Nelson said MCAS tests should be about encouraging improvement, not punishing schools.
"When I look at this system, I feel itís very punitive," Nelson said. "If you have a subgroup that doesnít perform well, you get two strikes against you. You never get credit for improving one group, you get pounded."

Although teachers are now heading back to the classrooms to discuss the most recent results, Belson said it appears that the ever-tightening MCAS scores may force a change in the system soon enough.

"When every city fails to meet adequate process, what will they say," Belson said. "Weíll take solace in our achievements, but at the same time we always want to improve, and it will take more than just raising the bars and saying weíre challenging the youngsters."

— Matthew Keough
Medford Transcript/Town Online


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