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The MCAS Controversy

By Denebola
Published: March 2008

By Pilar Quezzaire

As a vehement opponent of standardized testing, I have always been leery about the purpose of MCAS. More generally, I question so-called “high stakes testing, or assessments that determine a student’s right to either graduate from high school or enter college.
Testing of this kind is used in many countries around the world, and while it provides some ease for educators and generalized standards for school systems to follow, it tends not to produce innovative or creative thinkers, a quality that I think sets the best-educated Americans apart from many other nations.
MCAS is purported to be the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ attempt at standardizing the curriculum for all schools in the state. It is certainly admirable to equalize education. The disparities between public schools are directly connected to the wealth of the school district, and there is no doubt that students in Massachusetts are not all educated equally.
That being said, the state did not consider standardized testing as part of evening the playing field until 1993, when the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was passed.
The MCAS was further expanded in response to the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. Under this act, school districts are held accountable for the performance of their students based on standards created by their respective states. If these districts fail to meet the standards, they are at risk of losing millions of dollars in federal funding. Because testing is a major component of the No Child Left Behind Act, the MCAS was woven into the Commonwealth’s plan to comply with it. At this juncture, the state has not finished developing the assessments for every subject.
I am never a fan of a hastily put together test. It takes decades to develop a proper assessment to be used on such a wide scale. The MCAS is in serious need of further development.
The Student Achievement Test, or the SAT, was developed in the 1920s and has been in constant development ever since, yet it is still considered a flawed and biased test on many levels. National entrance exams in other countries such as China and Canada have been in place for even longer, and even these require constant revision.
Consider the following: if it takes so long and so much energy to develop a decent assessment, how can schools direct energy into developing better teachers, textbooks, and support materials that actually help students learn?
Is it a better service to teachers and students to hold them accountable to a set of content that is administered in a high-stress environment? Does testing harm a teacher’s ability to teach the skills necessary for life after school such as critical thinking, independent exploration of ideas, and social responsibility? Most importantly, will standardized testing even out the playing field as No Child Left Behind alleges to do?
I seriously doubt this.
Countries that use national testing systems have not solved their achievement gaps or socio-economic differences concerning education through testing.
For example, in China, only half of all students who take the national exam are admitted to university, and of those, over 70 percent of them come from 14 select urban areas whose residents make up roughly one-third of the country’s population. Rural schools rarely produce university students, largely because they are not as well-funded nor do they have alumni donors who can improve school conditions.
Despite a more equal education system in Canada, a significant achievement gap between students of African and Native American descent compared to white students still exists.
Testing has proven this problem rather than solved it.
If this is the case, why do Massachusetts students have to take a week out of their regular school time to take these tests? How can poor-quality schools manage to achieve the standards dictated by the test makers.
While some attempt must be made to make public education free, as equal as possible, and of the highest quality, the MCAS does not move us towards that goal.
I wish we could be refunded the millions of dollars spent on developing and administering MCAS, and spend it on higher teacher salaries and more support services for our students that will prepare them for the world they will be expected to live in when school is over.

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