Friday, October 28, 2005
What have we learned? What have we gained? What have we given up?
In 2000, after two rounds of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS exams, over 80% of teachers in the Concord schools and at Concord-Carlisle High School signed a petition opposing the controversial tests, which tenth graders must pass in order to receive high school diplomas.
Now, five years later, Carlisle students, with very few exceptions, score in the top 10% in all subjects, all CCHS students have passed the tenth grade MCAS and graduated, and the MCAS exams are an accepted landmark of public education in Massachusetts.
But at what cost? Have our schools needed to change their programs? Do teachers "teach to the test?" Have critical thinking skills, the ability to work in groups, and broadening electives been sacrificed for higher scores? Have many students been denied a high school diploma? Have the MCAS provided any value for our schools?
Interviews with educators in the Carlisle Public Schools, at Concord-Carlisle High School and at Minuteman Regional High School provide a mixed picture.
Carlisle Public Schools:
Carlisle Superintendent Marie Doyle believes that the MCAS has "stimulated great discussion" on educational expectations. The school is currently creating its own detailed benchmarks of what students should be able to learn and do at each class level. "We use the MCAS to look at student learning and to compare state standards to our internal assessments." Doyle believes that the state curriculum framework is basically sound, and mentions that Massachusetts educational standards are regarded nationally as rigorous.
The MCAS data has been valuable in pointing out some specific areas for improvement, says Doyle. In analyzing some lower than expected math scores last year, the school determined that students need to improve their approaches to open-ended math problems. This has been incorporated into current teaching. In addition, math teacher Liz Perry was designated a math specialist. Perry works with the elementary school teachers as well as individually with some students who need help.
The Carlisle School Committee (CSC) uses the MCAS scores to compare Carlisle to some twenty similar school districts. Carlisle's third- through fifth-grade scores have been similar to average scores in comparable towns. But in the sixth through eighth grades, Carlisle scores rise well above the 20-town average. CSC Chair David Dockterman believes that the Carlisle curriculum is not aligned very closely with the state frameworks in the lower grades. "We're off where we have chosen to be off, but by the eighth grade, we're fine," he says.
CCHS: Less fear now, but any benefits?
CCHS Principal Art Dulong also uses MCAS results to determine whether CCHS programs are matched to the state frameworks. One of the frustrations has been that both the frameworks and the exams have been changing over the last five years. At this time, however, the English and math frameworks are relatively set. History and science frameworks are still being revised and the social studies and science MCAS exams are still being tested.
"Our initial fear," Dulong continues, "was that the test would eliminate a large number of kids unfairly. This has not proven to be true. But a major concern still exists that not all students can display competency in one vehicle." Since 2003, when the passing the English and math MCAS exams became a requirement for graduation, every single CCHS student has graduated with a diploma, although not everyone passed in the Sophomore year. Those who do not pass the first time have four more chances to sit for the exams.
English Department Chair Victoria Moskowitz points out that the "ninth and tenth-grade curriculum has always focused on sharpening students' reading and writing skills. The sophomore curriculum pays particular attention to developing students' analytical writing skills. Therefore, it has not been necessary to alter our curriculum for the sake of the MCAS." What has changed is that the school now tries to identify those ninth-graders whose skills are weaker and who might be at risk for doing poorly on the MCAS. For those students a special MCAS ELA review class is offered which focuses on the types of questions that come up on the MCAS and on the kind of writing students are expected to do on the MCAS.
Since the math framework is not very different from the CCHS curriculum, very few changes have been needed, says John Yered, chair of the Math Department. The sequence of teaching certain math topics has been adjusted to match up with MCAS. For example, some trigonometry and working with matrices has been brought into the second-year geometry course. "Some MCAS-type problems are used in class, but we have not had to target any students for after-school [help] in the last two years," he says.
What about Special Education students? Those that have an Individualized Education Plan may be getting additional tutoring if the IEP calls for it, but otherwise there are no special MCAS sessions for any students.
Yered does not feel that the MCAS tests have provided any additional value to CCHS students and teachers. Are the annual statistics on student performance helpful? Does the MCAS provide a "stick" for individual students? We have always had metrics before, answers Yered, and CCHS students are already strongly motivated to score well on SATs and gain admission to competitive colleges. "MCAS testing results in a lot of lost class time in April and May and kills some of the momentum of the school year." He believes that the MCAS system is "politically driven versus educationally driven."
Minuteman Regional High School: big focus on basics
When asked whether the MCAS exams have driven any changes at Minuteman Regional High School, school Superintendent Bill Callahan laughs at the question. Minuteman serves 16 neighboring towns with its academic and vocational-technical programs, and draws students from additional communities on a tuition basis. Students many different learning styles come from a wide range of middle schools. Many students arrive with a fourth or fifth-grade reading level; 52% are in Special Education. In recent years, very few Carlisle and Concord students have registered at Minuteman.
Minuteman assesses all incoming students, and those with weaker skills are scheduled for double sessions in English and math in the first two years. Callahan reports that 92% of students pass the English MCAS the first time around and 90% pass math. Those who fail in Sophomore year are scheduled for two more English and math classes in their junior year.
Minuteman students spend only 90 days out of the 180-day school year in academic classroom instruction. Two programs alternate: students spend one week in academics and the next week is in vocational programs. Consequently, students with heavy English and math course loads miss out on opportunities to study foreign languages and other electives. With MCAS pressures, Callahan says, "we have not been able to initiate arts and music programs."
Given the challenges, Minuteman's graduation record has been very good. In 2003 and 2004 only two students failed to receive a diploma. In 2005, five failed. These students left the school with a Certificate of Completion and a transcript. Some were certified in technical programs. But this does not serve these students well. "The idea that passing MCAS says that you have the skills of a high school graduate is not correct," Callahan states.
That said, Callahan believes that the intense focus on basics does help students succeed. "All learning is predicated on reading," he says. "In order to be a car mechanic you have to be able to read manuals, which are not written at the fourth-grade level." His hope is that elementary and middle schools will improve, so that schools like Minuteman can focus on their educational mission.
It has now been seven years since MCAS tests were initiated in 1998 "to raise educational standards in the state and to measure the performance of individual students and school districts." Clearly the experience of the good suburban schools serving students at the high end of the socio-economic ladder has been different from that of urban schools and school serving special student populations.
In the Carlisle and Concord-Carlisle school districts, fear of widespread student failure is largely gone. The MCAS exams and the state curriculum frameworks have forced schools to look closely at their curriculum and teaching sequence, but few changes were necessary. Annual MCAS scores and metrics provide one more way for schools to spot weaknesses or slippage. Students with weaker academic skills are getting more assistance with the fundamentals earlier in their school experience. While the impact of MCAS is overall less painful than initially feared, the two-week disruption of the school year is a heavy price to pay.
Callahan summarizes what many educators believe: "Education reform was a good thing, but MCAS is not the right [single] measure. We need different ways of assessing student achievement." That's exactly what many educators said in 2000.
© 2005 The