By Patricia Sweitzer
Patricia Sweitzer manages the western regional outreach efforts of Mass Insight Education and the Coalition for Higher Standards. Before joining Mass Insight Education, Pat founded the Pioneer Valley Regional Education and Business Alliance (REBA) in western Massachusetts.
Yes, MCAS is a tough test, but the passing standard is fair. Yes, the state standards and testing program are not perfect. But MCAS is not the problem with student achievement, its just the messenger. And it's a message that we, as a regional community, are finally hearing. The question seems to be whether we can harness our collective intelligence and find solutions for the far too many students who graduate from high school without the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.
According to a recent Public Agenda survey, only 33% of college professors and 39% of employers believe that a high school diploma means the student "has at least learned the basics." To combat this problem, both businesses and colleges test applicants to determine their level of skill. In many instances, the results are disappointing: Bell Atlantic, for example, found that only 45% of its job applicants could pass a test that was geared to a sixth grade level.
It was stories like these that prompted educators, legislators, business leaders, and others to enact the state's comprehensive Education Reform Law in 1993. The result was simple but powerful. Every student, whether attending school in the wealthiest of suburbs or the poorest of cities, would receive an education based on curriculum standards that applied to all. An accountability system would apply to students and schools using a standards-based test. The class of 2003 will be required to pass a 10th grade English and Math test by the time they became seniors to be eligible for a high school diploma.
It's important to remember that MCAS is unlike any other standardized test given to Massachusetts' students. In fact, it is not a standardized test, but a standards-based test that assesses student mastery of the standards. Rather than relying on multiple-choice questions, the MCAS includes a mix of multiple-choice, short answer and essay questions, which test a student's comprehension of both essential skills and how to apply them.
We know the world will be fast-paced, highly competitive, and require creative solutions to keep our communities, state, and nation strong. We will need all of our region's children to learn to participate in the workforce and in the democratic process of our cities and towns. Congressional hearings this week on relaxing immigration policies to enable U.S. businesses to find qualified technology and engineering workers reinforced my view that our public schools are uniquely positioned to help students prepare for that future. Why?
To really understand the impact MCAS has had, just look into classrooms to see the changes that have occurred since the test was put in place and the graduation requirement announced. Schools where students consistently perform well on MCAS are those with a rich and diverse curriculum and that value critical thinking and writing skills over rote memorization. Some have argued that the state standards and testing program has forced the elimination of creativity and instead filled classrooms with days of "teaching to the test."
What I have witnessed that is right in schools is teachers using information from MCAS to raise expectations for students. And those expectations can only be met by teachers' unyielding ability to redesign lessons that lead to mastery of the standards, and thus passing scores on MCAS, and that keep learning active and engaging.
MCAS is only one measure of a student's talents and one requirement, in addition to coursework, grade-point averages, and attendance provisions, that determine eligibility for a diploma. And to pass the 10th grade Math and English test, a student needs to answer half of the multiple-choice questions correctly and receive 1 out of 4 points on each open response question.
So while the state contemplates MCAS waivers for special needs students and an appeals process, we have an opportunity. An opportunity to heed the messenger, determine what skills students are not obtaining, and ensure that we give them every chance possible to meet these standards. I hope we will seize it.