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NCLB Outrages

MCAS Doesn't Measure Up

Ohanian Comment: Good
point to link high stakes tests like the MCAS
to standards-based reform. Many people skip
over the fact that standards mania is at the
root of ten years ago I wrote a little book
denouncing standards: One Size Fits Few: The
Folly of Educational Standards
. You can buy
it cheap at Amazon used books.

by Al Rudnitsky

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment
System (MCAS) is our commonwealth's version of
the federal mandate known as No Child Left
Behind (NCLB). And NCLB is the national version
of standards-based reform - which is supposed
to be a solution to a problem.

For the most part, the public has taken
standards-based reform as the only solution to
a problem. The problem being, of course, the
deficient quality of our education system and
the inordinate number of poorly educated people
who emerge, or sometimes never emerge, from
that system.

There is a great deal to be said about the
complex problems of our education system. These
problems certainly have been around for a long
time and periodically they become more
noticeable, such as when the Soviets launched
the Sputnik satellite, or our nation is judged
to be at risk because of poor literacy, or when
good jobs are outsourced to up-and-coming
countries. Whatever particular issues people
may focus on, most would agree that our
education system has problems.

To solve our educational problem, standards-
based reform offers the following two steps:
First, set high standards. Second, measure
progress toward those standards and hold
schools and teachers accountable for achieving

The original impetus for standards-based reform
came from the business community. (Ross Perot
was among the more vocal proponents.). After
all, businesses set goals (let's sell a million
widgets at a 12 percent profit) and then
measure their progress toward those goals (how
much money have we made?). Anyone can see how
well this has worked for business - until

Truth is, it's impossible to argue against high
standards without sounding like a fool or a
subversive. Imagine a politician who is seeking
election coming out against high standards for
schools. As for needing to measure progress
toward standards, it seems a self-evident and
commonsense notion.

The problem with MCAS - and standards-based
reform - is in the details. Standards-based
reform sits on the foundation of testing. Yet
we never question whether our testing tools are
up to the job we need them to do. Instead we
put total trust in our ability to measure
important educational outcomes. Our trust is
misplaced. Testing's state of the art is on
measuring narrowly focused skills and specific
facts and information. Because we are adept at
measuring these things and because measuring
progress and holding teachers and schools
accountable are core aspects of standards-based
reform, we have allowed our standards to be set
so that they embody what is easily measured. In
doing so, we let the testing tail wag the whole
educational dog. Meaningless phrases are often
used to obscure the reality of our overly
narrow focus. In its Oct. 2 editorial, the
Gazette refers to "MCAS as a way of tracking
and comparing student comprehension of basic
skills." What is comprehension of basic skills?
Is that the same as plain old basic skills?
Does adding the term "comprehension" impart
some special quality to basic skills? Is the
term comprehension meant to imply some deeper,
more significant kind of learning? A look at
the curriculum frameworks and MCAS test items
suggests otherwise.

A widely held conception is that students need
the basics in order to get to meaningfulness,
deep knowledge, and understanding. This simply
is not true. The entire thrust of the science
of learning informs us that skills, whether
those of reading and writing or the ability to
perform mathematical calculations, are best
learned in contexts where they are used in
meaningful ways by student trying to better
understand their world. These skills are tools
and isolating them from their authentic
application will not prepare students for
participation in the knowledge age in which we
find ourselves.

The Gazette, on Sept. 17, ran an article
in which Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts
education commissioner, addressed falling
scores in reading comprehension. Chester said,
"I am concerned that the emphasis in early
grade reading may have swung too far toward the
mechanics of reading ¿ without enough attention
being paid to understanding what you're
reading." Exactly. Our tests of skill are
imperfect; our tests of subject matter, like
history and science, are a disaster. Here
testing's state of the art focuses exclusively
on specific information and yet we have
unquestioningly adopted these tests as the
bellwether of our education system. A student
may have a growing understanding about aspects
of science and how scientific inquiry proceeds;
our tests, however, are "either-you-know-it-or-
you-don't." Students do not get a chance to
reason with the information they do know. Facts
and information are important when they are
connected to ideas. Facts and information are
best learned and remembered when they are part
and parcel of meaning making in schools.

Make no mistake, the emphasis on accountability
means teachers will teach to the test. They
almost have to. Caught in a system which keeps
raising the testing bar - NCLB requires that
schools show continual improvement - teachers
never get to the point where they can turn
their attention to other, more important
content. Schools that do not measure up receive
funds that must be spent to improve scores and
thus are spent on consultant services like
those offered by Kaplan.

Kaplan, as a case in point, has gone from a
small SAT prep company to an NCLB giant with
revenues of $2 billion, accounting for more
than half the income of its parent, The
Washington Post Company. Much of Kaplan's
program doesn't even address content; instead
it is aimed at how to outsmart the tests. NCLB
is not leaving test makers and test preparers
behind; these companies are taking in big
taxpayer dollars. By not insisting that our
schools integrate academic skills and factual
information with meaningfulness, right from the
outset, we insure that meaningfulness won't
appear at all.

Having said this, it is only fair to note that
there are many teachers who manage to achieve
much more. They do so despite the tests, not
because of them. It is also fair to note that
there are teachers who do not belong in
classrooms. Giving these inept teachers a
script for teaching to the tests is not a
solution to the serious problems we face in
education. These people should not be teaching.
Some people fear that meaningful learning is an
excuse for fun and games in classrooms. It is
not. Achieving deep learning calls for serious
and hard work by students and teachers. Deep
learning has the added benefit that students
just might find it interesting too.

Proponents of standards-based reform point to
particular schools, which for years had been
achieving nothing, and are now at least doing
something. Perhaps this allows us to think we
are doing the best we can with our afflicted,
often urban, failing schools. But, if our
education system has a problem, it is in our
failing schools where the problem is most
pressing. And it is the young people in urban
schools that most need the kind of education
that gives them a chance to be full
participants in the knowledge age that will
characterize their world.

If we addressed our education crisis with a
fraction of the urgency applied to our
financial crisis, we might make some
significant strides. We need a public debate
about education that examines some of our
assumptions, most notably that the school
experience, which may have worked for them, is
not going to work for their children. Education
needs leadership that can explain what high
standards are and what it will take to achieve
them. Education needs the incentives to attract
really talented people, educate them
appropriately, and support them in all our
schools. Setting standards and holding schools
accountable for achieving them is a great
political applause line and an easy winner on
the editorial page. But standards-based reform
is reform on the cheap.

Al Rudnitsky is a professor of Education &
Child Study at Smith College.

— Al Rudnitsky
Daily Hampshire Gazette


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