Friday, May 19, 2000
CCHS teachers petition RSC to oppose MCAS. Teachers dispute high-stakes approach
Concord and Concord-Carlisle High School teachers presented the Regional School Committee with a petition, asking the committee to take a public position opposing the the controversial Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests. Citing similar actions taken recently by the Lincoln-Sudbury, Arlington and Brookline school committees, the teacher petition states, "We believe your voice can make a difference. We call upon you to publicly oppose the current use of MCAS, particularly as a requirement for graduation."
Over 80 percent of teachers at the K-8 schools in Concord and at the high school signed the petition calling for changes in the statewide tests begun in 1998. The Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE) implemented the testing program as a way to raise educational standards and measure the performance of individual students, schools, and school districts. At a public meeting at Concord-Carlisle High School before MCAS had been introduced, William Guenther of the Massachusetts Coalition for Higher Standards explained that the intention of the MCAS tests is to "raise the bar for students with the goal to better prepare them for college, life, and the work force."
Teachers have now been on the frontline administering MCAS tests for two years and have an inside view of its effects on the curriculum and students. In a relatively short period of time, the school district, along with others around the state, has worked to align the curriculum to match the state education frameworks, prepared students for the tests and administered them each spring. "We support both high expectations of our students and our accountability as professional educators," the teachers state in the petition. "We also want to encourage a love of learning and an authentic system of assessment."
Speaking at the RSC meeting on May 9, CCHS social studies teacher Andrei Joseph called the MCAS tests anything but comprehensive. He said the tests do not measure critical thinking skills, the ability to work in groups, or imagination -- all skills that the school district's teachers try to foster in students. Joseph said the tests have altered the intention of the Education Reform Act of 1993 by making the tests the sole measure of student performance, without evaluating other work, such as class assignments or a student's portfolio.
Student stress, curriculum disruptions
Teacher Sue Curtain, spokesperson for the K-8 schools in Concord, said teachers are concerned about the stress level they have observed in some students taking the tests in the elementary and middle schools. The tests also have a big impact on the school year and curriculum. They are being given this week and next and can take up to 14 hours or even longer since students can have as much time as they need to complete a test. Teachers supervise the test-taking and cannot return to regular class lessons until the tests are complete. "We lose two weeks due to testing in the spring at a crucial time. Once kids are off-track when the hot weather arrives, the school year might as well be over already," Curtain said. Special needs students are required to take the tests, and any accommodations to assist students are provided by special education teachers.
High stakes test
Because students must pass MCAS to get their diploma, the tests are considered high stakes. Beginning with the current ninth grade class, the class of 2003, all students must pass the English and math portions of the tests in order to graduate. Joseph expressed concern over the number of students with failing scores and said the test should not be used punitively to deny a diploma to a student who fails the test. Seventeen percent of CCHS students failed the tenth-grade math test in 1999, while 53 percent of students in the state failed in math. However, because the tests are being phased in, tenth-grade scores don't count for graduation until next year. Then, if a student fails one part of the MCAS test in the tenth grade, they can retake that part of the test again in grade 11 or 12, if needed.
In the discussion, Assistant Superintendent Karen Nerpouni was asked to estimate the number of CCHS students who might fail part of the test. Nerpouni said her best guess is that five to ten students might not be able to get their diploma, even after retaking the tests. CCHS will offer math tutoring for ninth grade students who received a failing grade on the eighth grade math test, as soon as a tutor can be hired at the high school. CCHS applied for and received a grant this year from the Department of Education for MCAS tutoring.
Minorities and special needs students
The teachers also point out that some students have a decided disadvantage when taking the rigorous tests, particularly special education students, minorities, students from low-income homes and those with English as a second language.
CCHS science department chair, Al Powers of Carlisle, cited errors in the science portion of the test and omissions in the state's frameworks for chemistry as reasons to question the competency of the frameworks issued by the DOE.
Student council member Kate Huyette, who took a science class with sophomores and juniors last year, spoke of the disruption due to the testing. "Mr. Powers couldn't move on with the curriculum for two weeks," she said. While sophomores were occupied with the science MCAS test, juniors worked on labs and did remedial work. Powers also said MCAS costs the state $105-$110 per student to administer each year. By contrast, he said his annual budget for the high school science department is $25 per student annually, which must cover textbooks, chemicals, lab supplies, and all other costs.
CCHS well above state averages
While the teachers oppose MCAS in its present form, student test scores show CCHS is among the top schools in the state. "We don't have anything to hide in Concord," Joseph acknowledged. The Concord and Carlisle schools have high student test scores, are widely recognized as exceptional school districts and are not the target of education reform legislation.
MCAS test results from the first two years show most CCHS students scored well above the state averages. There are four levels of student performance: advanced, proficient, needs improvement, and failing. In 1999, in English and language arts, 66 percent of tenth-grade students scored either proficient or advanced, while the state average for the test is 34 percent at proficient or above. In math, 58 percent of all CCHS students scored either proficient or advanced compared with the state average of just 24 percent of students at proficient or above.
The state tests are being given this week and next in grades 4, 8 and 10 in math, English and language arts, science, and history and social science. Grade 3 students in Concord will take a reading "tryout" test this year, without individual scores. Nerpouni said the state is phasing out the traditional Grade 3 Iowa reading test and replacing it with a new MCAS reading test.
School committee response
Carlisle member Cindy Nock said she was hesitant to undermine MCAS, calling it a tool to examine schools. Nock said she believes that the intention of the tests is not to harm minorities. While acknowledging issues with the length of the test, she encouraged students not to boycott MCAS, as some student groups in the state have done. Member Fred Wersan of Concord said he didn't disagree with the teachers' concerns, but stated that the punitive effect of MCAS was a political problem at the state level. He asked the teacher representatives what their goals were. Curtain responded that they want to remind the Department of Education that the tests are not the best way to improve education. "It would make a difference to the staff if a statement came from the school committee," she said.
Jody Kelman, student representative to the RSC, was in favor of MCAS saying she believes that the English and math tests are valuable as standard base tests. "I believe someone who graduates should be able to write a coherent essay," she said. A parent of a special needs child in the audience also said she believes in the tests and wanted the results as an indicator of what her child has learned.
Concord Superintendent Ed Mavragis said he is against high stakes testing that denies a high school diploma if a student fails. Mavragis said he believes the math and English tests are important, but the social studies and science tests are flawed in their current versions. He believes that pressure from teacher and parent groups in the state has already had an effect on the Department of Education and predicted, "We will see an evolution of the tests." Lauren Walters of Concord, the newly elected RSC chair, told the teacher representatives that MCAS would be discussed again at a subsequent meeting.
Nock added later that the school committee is now reviewing MCAS opposition statements sent by other school districts to the Department of Education. The RSC is considering providing its own position on MCAS to the Department of Education which Nock said "may or may not be in the same line" as the Concord and CCHS teacher statement. She said, "I believe in education reform and I'm in support of other schools and whatever it takes to help them to achieve. We need standards."
After the meeting, Powers said that the faculty is hoping the school committee "will respond with a formal position, relative to their own thinking. Not once in 26 years of my teaching at CCHS has the faculty been compelled to bring a petition to the school committee asking them to take an active position on state policy. The school committee can do a service to schools in difficulty by speaking to this."
Shorts from the RSC
Lauren Walters of Concord has been elected chair of the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee for the 200-2001 school year. Carlisle member Harry Crowther was elected vice-chair and Carlisle member Cindy Nock will serve as the Concord-Carlisle representative to the Educational Collaborative of Greater Boston Board of Directors.
Japanese student friendship program
Local families are needed to join the international friendship program, sponsored by the Boston Institute of Intercultural Communication in Lincoln. The program matches 18- to 20-year-old students from Japan with American families for on-campus parties and off-campus visits during the summer months. Contact Janna Spinazola for details at (781) 266-3026.
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