The large, first-floor south meeting room at Town Hall, home to the Advisory Committee during town meeting seasons, witnessed another episode in the long-running struggles over regimented testing in public schools, starting at 7:30 pm Tuesday, October 20.
Earlier that day, Mitchell Chester, the state’s current education commissioner, had set off a policy bomb. It blew up a campaign to replace the testing used in Massachusetts public schools for the past 18 years–a campaign that had been led by Dr. Chester himself.
Tarnished icons: The mystique of regimented testing has been burnished and tarnished so often that it was surprising to hear a usually sophisticated Advisory Committee weave around the topics. However, it has been about fifteen years since a town meeting campaign that most recently introduced them into Brookline politics. Only a few current Advisory members have been involved long enough to remember.
Although precursors can be found in ancient China, medieval Europe and mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts, regimented testing is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. A quantitative approach helped give standard tests a claim to objectivity, shrouding heavy cultural bias. The tests reward informally acquired language skills and penalize lack of those skills, tending to make them tests of home and community backgrounds.
When anyone thought to look, a secret emerged: test scores strongly tracking home and community incomes. Trends were discovered with IQ tests in the 1920s, Iowa tests in the 1930s and SAT tests in the 1940s. The more recent tests do likewise, including state-sponsored regimes. Scores from the early years of the Massachusetts MCAS tests showed strong associations with community incomes.
Dumping PARCC: Dr. Chester, of the state education department, has been serving as national board chair of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Despite a glorified title, PARCC is a commercial test series produced by a division of Pearson PLC, a London-based publishing company. Its cachet has been fully computerized test administration and scoring.
Many observers have described the superficially clever construction of PARCC tests, seemingly designed to confuse and mislead. To people familiar with The Times of London or The Nation magazine, they suggest the prompts for British-style crossword puzzles.
In the United States, supposed merits of PARCC were quickly unmasked. As one experienced teacher put it, “Test manufacturers…tell us…their tests require critical thinking. They are lying. They prove [it with] relentless emphasis on test security.” Pearson will not allow teachers to see the questions that students were asked. If their tricks were to become known, they might easily be foiled.
In his day job as education commissioner, Dr. Chester had been in deep and obvious conflict of interest with his night job as chair of the PARCC board. When finally dumping PARCC on October 20, he arrived late to the party at a national trend. Over two-thirds of the state-level jurisdictions that tried PARCC have dumped it. Even by the obtuse standards of educational testing, PARCC was flagged as a loser.
Dr. Chester’s loyalists sententiously claim “there was no ultimatum given [by] Peyser and Baker”–meaning the new governor and his education secretary. Such pre-emptive denials tend to say the opposite. Politicians may not be great at higher math, but they can count.
Thinking about testing: At the fall town meeting scheduled for November 17, Article 16 seeks support for H. 340, pending in the General Court. Filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge, it would forbid, for three years, the use of “MCAS or another standardized test” as a “condition for high school graduation.” That is what many call “high-stakes uses” of test scores. Rep. Frank Smizik, who represents Brookline Precincts 2-4 and 6-13, is a cosponsor of H. 340 and also a co-petitioner for Article 16.
At Advisory Committee on October 20, Brookline resident Lisa Guisbond spoke for Article 16. She is executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston-based nonprofit founded to support progressive, public education. “With high-stakes uses of test scores,” she said, “the teaching focus is narrowed to the subjects tested…you lose access to a broad curriculum.”
In Brookline schools, that probably tends to happen with students who are identified as at risk of not graduating because they have trouble with one or more of the tests. Many of those students benefit from programs that try to strengthen their abilities in the areas tested. Inevitably, however, teaching to the test crowds out other areas of knowledge, as well as aspects of a topic that are not going to be tested.
Committee member Amy Hummel sounded eager to “put a moratorium on it.” Since 1993, she said, when a law authorizing MCAS was passed, “there are so many things that are different…MCAS is one vegetable in the pot…In my family, it’s converse to learning.” Few other committee members seemed to have such clear perspectives on regimented testing.
Some committee members tried to extrapolate from personal experience but found it difficult. Committee member Janet Gelbart remembered “studying for (New York state) Regents Exams…taking courses to learn how to take exams” but said her daughter was graduated from Brookline High School “long before MCAS.”
Many committee members seemed to discount educational experiences with testing regimes and instead resort to their hunches about policy. Committee member Fred Levitan said he failed “to see how stopping testing allows people to study it.” Clifford Brown saw “no reason to stop the use of testing.” Lee Selwyn said he couldn’t understand “shutting it down for three years.”
Advisory Committee members seemed confused when voting on the topics. When Sean Lynn-Jones first counted votes on a motion to approve Article 16, he found 9 in favor and 9 opposed, but some committee members said they did not understand what was proposed. After more explanation, a recount found 9 in favor, 10 opposed and 2 abstaining–putting the committee on record as narrowly opposing Article 16.
– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, October 21, 2015
Warrant for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015
Article explanations for November 17, 2015, special town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA, September 8, 2015
Michael Jonas, Chester abandons PARCC, Commonwealth Magazine, October 20, 2015
Andy Hargreaves, Mary Bridget Burns and Shanee Wangia, The success of schools in Massachusetts cannot be explained by testing, Diane Ravitch on Education, June 18, 2015
An act relative to a moratorium on high stakes testing and PARCC, H. 340, Massachusetts General Court, 2015
David A. Goslin: The Search for Ability, Russell Sage Foundation, 1963
Craig Bolon: School-based standard testing, Educational Policy Analysis Archives 8(23), 2000
Craig Bolon: Significance of test-based ratings for metropolitan Boston schools, Educational Policy Analysis Archives 9(42), 2001
Lisa Guisbond, Testing reform victories, the first wave, National Center for Fair and Open Testing, 2014
Forum: regimented testing in Brookline public schools, Brookline Beacon, October 27, 2014
Craig Bolon, Dr. Lupini moves to Brookline, Brookline Beacon, June 21, 2014
School Committee: Driscoll plans, policies, technology and testing, Brookline Beacon, May 27, 2014
School Committee: celebrations, programs, policies and test scores, Brookline Beacon, May 12, 2014