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Weight of MCAS in Education Remains Focus of Debate on Hill

May 10, 2011Council in the News, State House News Service

By Michael Norton

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MAY 10, 2011…..Critics of the major role high-stakes standardized tests play in public education called on lawmakers Tuesday to shift toward a system featuring multiple assessments, saying the emphasis on passing the MCAS is adversely and disproportionately affecting students with learning disabilities.

“Education reform is 18 years old,” Louis Kruger, a Northeastern University professor and Citizens for Public Schools board member, told members of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “It needs a conscience with regard to students with disabilities.”

Kruger said that of the 3,000 students in Massachusetts who did not receive high school diplomas last spring because they did not pass MCAS exams, 2,000 were students with disabilities.

“It’s disproportionately harming a segment of our population that already has it difficult enough,” said Kruger, noting many trades won’t accept employees without high school diplomas and adding that he’s open to the idea of an “alternative diploma” for certain students.

Supporters of the MCAS say requiring students to pass the standardized tests in order to receive a diploma was one of the most successful requirements of the 1993 education reform law and provided a critical tool for students and school districts to track performance. MCAS supporters say the tests have helped ensure accountability as well.

The Massachusetts High Technology Council sees the multiple assessment approach as a weakening of MCAS.

In written testimony, council vice president James D. Rooney said Massachusetts since 1993 has regained its status as a national and international leader in student achievement and pointed out that recent research shows state investments in K-12 education since 1993 were “largely absorbed by runaway municipal health insurance costs.”

“Our progress in student achievement isn’t, then, due to an influx of state funding, but rather due to the new innovations and assessments like the MCAS that have created a new culture of expectations and accomplishment,” Rooney said.

Rep. Jennifer Benson (D-Lunenburg) said she attended schools in New Hampshire and observed great disparities in the overall caliber of education there. Claims that passing MCAS is the only graduation requirement are “inaccurate,” she said, noting students have to meet school district requirements as well.

Benson said she has three children attending public schools and called the debate over assessing student performance an “important conversation.” She said, “Do we need to balance our measures? I think we do.”

Speaking in favor of the bill (H 1955), Monty Neill, director of Cambridge-based FairTest said MCAS is not the only measure of student achievement but has become “the focus.” Neill said “narrow teaching to the test” takes away from efforts to ensure students acquire the skills they’ll need to be successful in college or in the workplace.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) said “very high” numbers of students in public higher education needing remedial education are an indication that even students with high school diplomas are not ready for college.

But Jehlen said she wants advocates for a multiple assessment system to provide more information about why their proposal represents an upgrade over the emphasis on the MCAS. “I need to know more about evidence for the next step,” Jehlen said.

Kruger said the emphasis on the MCAS means a less comprehensive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of individual students. “Every instrument has its limitations,” he said, asserting that a multiple assessment system would lead to more detailed profiles of individual students.

Sponsored by Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Medford), the multiple assessment legislation is described within the bill an act to “ensure that high school graduates possess a reasonable breadth and depth of knowledge and skills.”

The bill itself states that the 1993 education reform law called for a “comprehensive assessment system composed of a variety of instruments and methods that are sensitive to different learning styles and barriers to learning such as English language proficiency and learning disabilities.”

Increasingly, the Massachusetts High Technology Council is stepping up to create, execute, and lead critical statewide competitiveness strategies. Fostering a vision for our innovation economy under the MassVision2050 banner, the Council solidifies its position as a thought leader providing valuable insights to navigate emerging technologies, facilitates long-term planning, and reinforces the Council's commitment to excellence and action in the evolving Massachusetts tech-driven economy.

To learn more, contact Council President Chris Anderson.