If education justice is the goal, don’t follow Massachusetts

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Massachusetts, like Connecticut, has long boasted top-performing public schools (“Massachusetts Is Like Connecticut, But Does a Better Job Educating the Poor,” Dec. 11, 2017). Students in both states scored at or near the top on national tests before the start of high-stakes testing. But then, as now, there have been huge differences in academic outcomes linked to race, income, language and disability. These gaps mirror the two states’ large (and growing) gaps in wealth and opportunity, as well as glaring inequities in school funding between rich and poor districts.

In 1993, under pressure from a lawsuit, Massachusetts legislators passed the Education Reform Act to address historic inequitable funding. The money reduced severe funding disparities. It enabled schools to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes, making a real difference in opportunity to learn. But over the years, funding has not kept pace with needs.  In recent years, test scores have flattened on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In 2015, a state commission concluded Massachusetts is underfunding schools by at least $2 billion a year.

Racial justice, educational excellence and equity are critically important goals. The record shows Massachusetts’ top-down, test-and-punish playbook has not helped achieve them. For example, the state’s steadily growing population of English language learners lags far behind other students in test results and graduation rates. For ELLs, the state ranks 19th in eighth grade reading and 10th in math.

Massachusetts’ education leaders acknowledge the failure of the system to achieve educational equity. Former Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville recently conceded that the state’s poorest students are still left behind. “We should work at continuing to improve schools,” but “despite our best efforts, we haven’t been able to erase that correlation” between family income and student achievement.

Test-driven schooling is part of the problem. National surveys show most Americans think there is too much focus on standardized testing. One recent poll by Phi Delta Kappan magazine found “little support for standardized testing in contrast to the deep interest in testing by policy makers.” The overuse and misuse of standardized testing has done real damage to educational quality and equity. It has narrowed and dumbed down curriculum, driving out much of what people want children to learn and experience, and creating a joyless atmosphere of anxiety and fear that inhibits learning.

Rather than follow Massachusetts’ lead and impose more tests, Connecticut should implement an assessment system using projects and portfolios that promote and measure deeper, broader learning. As a first step, communities, including educators, parents and students themselves, should discuss what they want schools to accomplish. Then educators, given sufficient time and support, can develop and use assessments to achieve those ends.

Surveys of public attitudes over time show a consensus about what we want our children to get out of school. Consistently, people say they want children to learn basic skills and critical thinking. But they also want them to make friends and learn how to get along with different kinds of people, to develop a lifelong love of learning and learn how to collaborate, cooperate and resolve conflicts. Parents and community members want children to be exposed to art, music and literature. At best, standardized tests do a weak job of measuring “basic skills” and don’t assess these other goals at all. No one ever says they send their child to school to learn how to take standardized tests in math and reading.

There are good examples of assessment alternatives in New England and nationally. Half of New Hampshire school districts are replacing standardized tests in most grades with local, teacher-made performance assessments. The Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) is working on a new accountability model based on what individual communities want to know about the quality of their schools. Test scores best predict wealth; MCIEA’s model that includes additional indicators breaks that link.

Then there’s the New York Performance Standards Consortium of 38 public high schools. Rather than endure high-stakes testing, they won waivers from four of the five state standardized graduation exams. This freed them from the demand to focus on test prep and allowed them to put their energies toward developing engaging, in-depth learning. By focusing on projects and performance assessments instead of standardized tests, they have improved graduation rates, college attendance, and college persistence for low-income urban youth.

Isn’t it time to listen to 25 years of evidence showing that test-based accountability systems are perpetuating a “charade,” as Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz calls it? Connecticut should look at the evidence and forge a different path.

Lisa Guisbond is an analyst for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest) in Boston, Massachusetts.


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