Friday, November 24, 2000
Two weeks ago the results of tenth grader performance on the third annual MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) exams were announced and the news was not good. Although some statistical improvement was noted versus the past two years, nearly half of all students who took the exam last spring did not pass. And the failure rate for minority students was nearly 80 percent. What is different now is that this class of high school students, the class of 2002, must pass the MCAS in order to receive a high school diploma.
Of course, in Carlisle and Concord we know that the statistics, when they are announced school by school, will be far better. In the past two years, the MCAS pass rate has been far above average but still it is not 100 percent. We know that there will be tenth grade students fourteen-year-old children who will fail. Some will fail the test and fail to graduate because of inadequate skills and knowledge; some will fail because of learning disabilities that make test taking difficult; some will fail due to the paralyzing fear of a high-stakes exam. We know that all students do not grow physically, intellectually, or emotionally at the same rate. Our schools have worked hard to accommodate different learning styles and to make all children feel respected. We accept the fact that some students need more time and individual attention, but believe that they can achieve to a respectable standard. Educators in Massachusetts have challenged some of the content of the exam and have uniformly spoken against using the MCAS as the sole criterion for graduation.
Many parents know that the cost of failure can be very high, especially for a fragile early adolescent. For a child who already knows academic struggle, failing the MCAS can be a defining blow that destroys self-respect and the confidence to try again. The impact of failure at an early age can last a lifetime. In this imperfect MCAS system, it is the student that will bear the greatest punishment when educational goals are not met not the teacher, not the school. Recognizing this, parents who have the means will likely consider placing their children in private schools, where MCAS will not be the sole criterion for graduation. Parents at lower income levels will not have this option.
There is universal agreement that public elementary and secondary education in our state must be improved. There is universal recognition that program and policy changeslength of school year, summer school, teacher preparation, syllabus changes must be supported by some quantitative measurement of student achievement. Testing is necessary to define the needs and problems, to identify the most effective program changes, and to measure improvement. And in every difficult task that requires tough decisions and painful sacrifices there must be some big stick to drive the process.
MCAS is a valuable tool. The graduation requirement is the big stick that legislators hope will drive the difficult tasks ahead. We should not risk the future of an individual young child in the struggle to improve the system for all.
The Will of the People
We've been hearing a lot about "the will of the people" lately. It's evident from the recent election that the will of the people is not always easy to determine. Whether on a national or a local level, the "will of the people" is even more difficult to determine if you think you know ahead of time what it is.
When asked to gauge public opinion about sidewalks in Carlisle, the Bike and Pedestrian Safety Committee devised a questionnaire that made it impossible for a respondent to be anything but for the project. The questionnaire did not leave room for open and fair responses on both sides of the issue, nor did it gather impartial information. The language of the questionnaire left responses wide open to interpretation. If my response to question 1 was that Carlisle's major roads are unsafe, does that mean I'm for sidewalks?
The questionnaire was distributed through the mail, through the school newsletter, and in the Mosquito. Multiple copies therefore ended up in each household. There is no way to tell who (children, etc) filled out the questionnaire, nor how many were (inadvertently) returned from each household. There is no accurate way to assess the results collected in this manner, regardless of the apparent outcome. The numbers presented at Town Meeting may not be final, but two different questions asking for similar information produced different results. Which one should we believe? The only thing we really know is how many questionnaires were returned. Any interpretation would rely on "fuzzy math."
Even if only one questionnaire was returned from each household, as requested, we don't vote that way. It is quite possible that different (voting) members of the same household feel differently on the issue. Should only one member of a household have a voice? The numbers can't possibly add up in this kind of survey.
We need real data and information to solve serious issues. With the impending Route 3 construction and the projected growth in the Route 495 corridor, traffic safety issues should be paramount in Carlisle. It's unfortunate that road safety in Carlisle has been equated with sidewalks without a thorough assessment of the overall situation. A recent Boston Globe article highlighted the regional approach nearby towns are taking to solve problems of ever-increasing, faster, more dangerous traffic. According to the article, officials in these towns realize that pedestrian and traffic issues are multi-faceted, and that they need to look at the "big picture." For example, the town of Arlington voted to begin a study to examine how people move through town using all means of transportation. Of course, they've already got sidewalks but sidewalks have not solved their traffic and safety problems.
On the national level, we see an intense contest for the public opinion, with each side attempting to interpret the "will of the people" to their own advantage. Would that we in Carlisle could act differently and work together to provide effective, practical solutions to our problems.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito