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Federal Law Says MCAS Not Enough; Massachusetts Needs More Tests

It's been a year since the "No Child Left Behind Act" was signed into law by President Bush, yet all the controversy being heard in this state has been over MCAS.

What does the new federal law mean to education in Massachusetts and how does it affect MCAS?

MassNews put those questions to State Education Commissioner David Driscoll recently at an education forum sponsored by MassINC.

He replied: "MCAS, as you know, is just for certain grades. This is going to require us to expand MCAS to grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. So, in a sense it's our system, but we are going to have to comply with the new law. So it is going to make us do more.

"The purpose of the new federal law is to raise student achievement across the board by requiring states to define the levels that all students are expected to reach by the 2013-2014 school year, expand testing programs, set timetables and ensure that teachers are "highly qualified."

MassNews asked another forum participant, Jack Jennings, the Founder and Director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, DC, to explain what the new law means to Massachusetts. The Center has released a national report on the issue.

Jennings: The "No Child Left Behind Act" is MCAS doubled. What it means is there is much more accountability than the state now has. It means a school has to be accountable for each subgroup of children every year in reading and math and in a couple of years also in science.

"It is a much stricter accountability scheme and the consequences are more precise than the state has now. Under this new federal law, if the school district receives federal money and a school receives federal money and there are problems, that school after a couple years has to offer public school 'choice' and has to offer the parents the option to take the federal money and buy supplemental services away from the school district. Then, a few years later, a school even has to be dissolved or substantially changed.

MassNews: What should parents think about this law? Is this another case of spending a lot of money and adding another layer of regulations with nothing to show for it?

Jennings: This could be very good. It could mean that student achievement goes up for all students and we eliminate the achievement gap between different racial and ethnic groups. But it is only going to be good if schools are given the tools in order to help all kids to do better, which means that schools are going to have to have more after-school programs, more summer programs, and they are going to have to hire teachers who are highly qualified.

If this is going to be realized, it means that schools are going to have to do a lot more, and this is in a day when schools are facing budget crises, and may have to do less with what they have. So the accountability will be there but I'm not sure if the money is going to be there in order to help the schools to do better.

MassNews: This will affect grades 3 through 8?

Jennings: The testing requirements are that all students in grades three through eight will have to be tested every year in reading and math and in a couple of years they'll also have to be tested in science. One grade in high school will also have to be tested. The states are all moving to comply with that.

What will happen here is MCAS will be expanded to include this additional testing. MCAS now does not test at all those grade levels, but it will have to be expanded to fulfill the federal requirements.

MassNews: Does this mean there will be more testing in Massachusetts?

Jennings: There will be more testing in Massachusetts. More kids will be tested. There will be individual test score results so that parents will be able to know in grades three through eight and once in high school exactly where their kids rank in terms of reading, math and science. So parents will know much more.

(Ohanian: Exactly what will parents know? Exactly what did you know when you knew your SAT Score?)

Parents will also know how many teachers in the building are highly qualified. Under this federal law, parents will have the right to go into a school building and ask the principal how many teachers are highly qualified and they'll have to be told. (Ohanian: Does "highly qualified" include data on how many teachers like children and enjoy being with them?)

[By 2006, states must have "highly qualified" teachers in all public school classrooms where core academic subjects are taught. "Highly qualified" means that a teacher must be fully certified or licensed, have a bachelor's degree and show competence in subject knowledge and teaching skills.]

MassNews: Is this an unfunded mandate?

Jennings: This law says that this accountability is demanded regardless of the level of federal funding provided.

MassNews: How does the federal government do that? How do they get jurisdiction to tell the States what to do in education?

Jennings: In the introduction to my report, I said this is the federal government providing seven percent of the money and demanding one hundred percent of the accountability.

The way it's done legally is, if a State accepts federal Title 1 money, then the State agrees to follow all these requirements regardless of whether the federal government provides more money.

So it's a condition on the receipt of federal aid. Every state receives federal aid and no state will refuse federal aid. Governor Dean a year ago suggested that Vermont would refuse this money and not be bound by the requirements, but Vermont went ahead and accepted the money and they are bound by the requirements. Every State in the union is bound by these requirements. So legally it is a grant in aid condition, which means that once a State accepts the federal grant, they are bound by these conditions.

MassNews: So the vehicle for implementing the federal law in this state is MCAS. There isn't a special 'No Child Left Behind' test. Each state does it their own way.

Jennings: Yes, each state does it their own way and since Massachusetts has been involved in this type of reform for seven or eight years now, this is just an expansion of what Massachusetts has been doing.

Sidebar: Goals of Federal Law Lauded By Commissioner Driscoll

State Education Commissioner David Driscoll told a forum recently that he believes in the goals of "No Child Left Behind," but he thinks changes should be made to it.

In fact, one of the reasons Massachusetts was the very first state to comply with the law, he said, is so that his suggestions for improvement would be taken seriously and not be brushed off as whining by a non-compliant state.

Lauds Goals
We have 75,000 fourth graders in this Commonwealth, says Driscoll. In eight years they will be making a momentous decision if they are still in school. We can almost sort them now by who will go to Ivy League schools and who will have difficulty, etc. because public education in Massachusetts and America sorts kids, not deliberately, but we do it subtly and in a lot of other ways, he said.

Because of that, the goal of the federal law to close the education gap are absolutely right, Driscoll believes. "We have to pay attention to our Special Education kids, our black kids, Latino kids, migrant kids, etc. This law rightfully, in my judgment, makes us uncomfortable--and it should. It should make us uncomfortable and make us feel a sense of urgency because we cannot continue to let this happen."

Problems With Federal Law
The problem with the new federal law is that it is a political document, as was the Education Reform Act, which was put together by people who had to make political compromises, says Driscoll. So it isn't perfect and needs to be looked at over time. Many reasonable changes have already been made to the original provision, he said.

One problem is there is too much of a rush to negativity in the law; the sanctions kick in too quickly, says Driscoll. "You are only as good as your lowest performers. It won't mean anything if everybody is relegated to a negative status right away. Also, money is a real issue that can't be ignored considering the state of the economy."

Driscoll also thinks it is odd that the states get to pick their own definition of proficiency, making it tempting to shoot lower. Many have suggested to him that they do just that so everybody will make adequate yearly progress and move on. But that wouldn't be the right thing for the kids, and we will do the right thing, says Driscoll. States also get to pick the definition of adequate yearly progress. Driscoll asked for ideas for improvements from the school districts and said he will take reasonable suggestions for changes and present them to the federal government.

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent James Caradonio

Worcester Public Schools Superintendent James Caradonio said the most formidable challenge of the law is to come up with a suitable plan for measuring "adequate yearly progress." The current rules for making that measurement present practical and technical dilemmas and could result in a large number of schools being identified for improvement, he said.

Caradonio pointed out, for instance, that the volatility of average test scores, especially in small groups, means that it may be unrealistic to expect schools to post the consistent test score gains demanded by the federal law. "In the volatility of test scores, do we really have a good school and a bad school, or do we have a lucky school and an unlucky school? What researchers are finding out is the latter."

Caradonio also said that the new law is stacked against "diverse" schools, because the law divides student average test scores into racial, ethnic, income, English proficiency and disability subgroups. The lowest "subgroup" score trumps the entire school score, he said.

— Ed Oliver
Federal Law Is Expanding MCAS To More Grades
Massachusetts Now
Feb. 4, 2003


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