"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Are You Listening, Mitchell Chester?

by Tracy Novick in the Worcester Telegram:

In his opening-of-school letter to school districts, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester commented: "I'm committed to understanding the concerns about the amount of testing that is occurring in Massachusetts schools. I plan to initiate a study of federally, state and locally required assessments and their uses in our schools. As I meet with professional organizations and visit schools in the year ahead, I look forward to hearing from you on this topic and others."

At her first meeting this past week, new Massachusetts Board of Education chair Margaret McKenna took the commissioner up on this welcome, raising concerns on the amount of standardized testing and test prep that is taking place in schools across the commonwealth.

As these concerns were followed by like concerns raised by other board members, Mr. Chester was quick to retort that districts were choosing this level of test prep.

That doesn't sound like a commitment to understanding.

In order to understand the concerns around overtesting, the commissioner is going to have to listen.

He's going to need to listen to students like Board of Education student representative Donald Willyard, who reported at the meeting that students at his school had already spent the better part of a week taking a practice test.

He'll need to listen to students as young as kindergartners who know that they dare not make noise at recess, or sing during music class, or applaud a classmate's presentation during MCAS time.

He'll need to hear from students whose language abilities do not match their math abilities, yet who are assessed in a language not native to them.

He'll need to listen to students who have fewer field trips, less recess time, less developmentally appropriate activities, all due to the almighty MCAS.

He's going to need to listen to teachers, like the teacher who last week told parents that she has to cram a year's worth of social studies into half a year "because we don't have time; we have to focus on reading and math."

He'll need to listen to teachers who each year watch their students struggle over directions that don't make sense, multiple choice questions that don't have a correct answer, and written assessments so structured that they stilt true expression — and are powerless to fix any of it.

He needs to hear from teachers who have slashed units and activities that were engaging and enlightening, as everything stops for test prep in March and May.

And he should listen to teachers whose livelihoods, in defiance of all relevance, will eventually be tied by state regulation to student test scores.

He's going to need to listen to parents, like those who wonder how it is that a test that assesses reading suddenly means the school library is off limits. He'll need to hear how frustrated they are by the enormous time sink of assessments: of days spent on MAP, of substitutes in for teachers doing Dibels, of weeks and weeks of time for MCAS.

He'll need to hear from parents whose children are inappropriately assessed by MCAS, whose schools have undergone upheavals around test scores, whose children come out the night before testing begins, in tears and with upset stomachs.

He's going to need to listen to principals, whose jobs we know now depend on MCAS scores. He'll need to hear of faculty meetings that have become nothing more than data sessions, of choices parents make based on school level, of the difficulties of managing a school that essentially goes into lockdown during testing time. He needs to listen to those whose entire careers spent educating children now stand or fall based on which kids might have had a bad day testing.

He's going to need to listen to superintendents, whose jobs now also depend on MCAS scores. He'll need to hear about the tensions of districts whose schools are now pitted against each other, rather than seeking out the students each can best serve. He needs to hear about the constant push on whether each child is "on track for MCAS" at any given point in the year. He should listen to the pressures to create District Determined Measures for teachers that are affordable, meaningful, and not standardized bubble sheets.

He's even going to need to listen to school committee members, faced with the local consequences of the unfulfilled promise of 1993. He'll need to listen to those who pass budgets we know to be undercalculated at the state level, even as districts remain, as they say, accountable for student test scores. He needs to hear of the frustration we have that the full, rich curriculum we know should be offered to our students too often boils down to two numbers in a chart in the paper.

The little-known truth is that the achievement gap was closing more rapidly prior to the passage of No Child Left Behind and mandated assessments in multiple grades. The biggest gains on closing educational gaps took place when we were focused on closing other gaps, during the War on Poverty.

The real choice before Massachusetts this coming year is not MCAS or PARCC. It is whether we will continue down a road that drills and kills all love of learning and engagement, while not closing the gaps we know exist in our system. Our oft-touted reputation as leader of the country in education demands that we choose a different road.

That, Mr. Commissioner, is what you need to hear.

Are you listening?

Tracy O'Connell Novick is a member of the Worcester School Committee.

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