Can’t see the district for the schools

Posted by Jeremy Shulkin

As we wade through the information we’ve gotten from the state regarding MCAS testing at Belmont Street Community School and the Goddard School of Science and Technology (our coverage here, here and most recently here, not to mention Gary Rosen’s fiesty columns), a quick line in a T&G editorial footnote from Wednesday caught my eye:

Some students thrive on pressure. But in a world where tests such as MCAS are viewed as make-or-break steps in one’s school career, many students would love to find a way to reduce stress and improve performance.

I don’t mean to pick on our brothers (and sisters) from another publisher, after all the writer was just looking for a lede to a short piece on boosting student performance before a big test, but it does show that after a decade people still have misconceptions about what the MCAS is.

The MCAS is not like the ACT or the SAT. A student’s MCAS score does not follow them throughout their career. It is not submitted to colleges during the application process.  The only influence MCAS has on students is that in high school they have to pass in order to graduate, but they get second and third chances to do so. Students who fail, miss or boycott the MCAS still get accepted into reputable colleges and universities. (Students who score in the top 25 percent of their district are eligible for an eight semester college scholarship.)

The exam is really a school assessment tool. With millions of dollars (billions at the federal level) tied to school performance, it’s used to grade principals. Recent hires know that when they take the job, and pre-MCAS principals had to grudgingly accept it. The school committee understood this when they voted to accept Race To The Top funds last year and the school department had to hold their end of the deal when they fired Denise Bahosh from Union Hill Elementary School and Mark Berthiaume from Chandler Elementary School.

One cry for cover has been to point out the work ethic of Goddard Principal Marion Guerra. Principal Guerra deserves all the praise in the world for her effort and demand for results, but last year no one made exceptions for Bahosh and Berthiaume, who had similarly difficult positions at two inner-city schools. Last year the school committee and district chose the state program over protecting personnel, this year they’ve chosen protecting personnel over the state program. While the state test is awful for a number of reasons, we can’t have it both ways. I’m certainly not advocating for Guerra to lose her job because she’s an important factor in the successes that school has had, but the district and school committee has to make a choice: you’re either all-in with the system or you’re trying to change it.

That’s why the “but what about the kids?” mentality is misguided. The kids aren’t reading in the T&G that their MCAS scores were invalidated (and if they are, kudos parents). It has no bearing on their education record. Seeking more facts — facts that have already been collected and compiled — would do no harm to any student.

Those same “what about the kids?” arguers should focus on this: the test is painfully unfair for most of Worcester’s students. Worcester is a challenging school district in which to teach or lead. 70 percent of WPS’ 24,200 students come from low-income homes. 43.2 percent of students do not speak English as a first language. 31.8 percent of those enrolled in WPS are quantified as “limited English proficient.” Belmont and Goddard’s populations have staggeringly higher numbers than the district averages. (Belmont: 88.9/48.0/46.3, Goddard: 97.5/65.5/61.6.) All of these figures far surpass state levels.

In my one year of teaching at South High Community School as a masters in teaching student, I taught sophomores — the most important MCAS year. On test day the students were nervous, but nothing compared to how my mentor teacher (she was the one with a job on the line) and I felt. After the testing days finished and classes resumed, we asked for our students’ reactions. The first question we got from them was, “What’s an Ursula?”

One of the reading passages was on the “Little Mermaid,” a story that was not common knowledge for kids who were born in 1993 and grew up in either a foreign country or inner-city Worcester. Nor was it a well-known name. Other essay topics were about visiting a lighthouse and how table salt is made; reading about those was probably just as boring as reading about watching paint dry.

What was considered “illicit coaching” at Goddard could have been teachers clarifying unfamiliar terms with students, attempting to teach them while they took the test. Knowing what an “Ursula” is doesn’t measure a student’s intelligence, it just measures their exposure to characters in Disney movies. If the issues at Goddard and Belmont came from the unfamiliar terminology used on the exam, then that should be highlighted by the school committee and the WPS, and brought to the state’s attention. Whether or not that was the case, though, is buried in the DESE’s investigation.

We could still find out what went wrong with the test proctoring while keeping individual names out of this. Public documents are almost always redacted, holding personal information out of the public eye. Keep the events that led to two investigations in, take the names of those proctoring the tests out. Simple enough.

As someone whose job it is to find out as much information about a topic as I can before I set out to write about it, it’s absolutely mind-blowing to see people who rely on research and data to make informed decisions give this one a pass. It’s even more incredible when that decision is defended by journalists — the one group of people who should be jealous of how easy it is for elected officials to have access to these kinds of materials. The information is there. It can be provided without compromising teachers. It can be learned from. It could improve the state assessment system. It’s being deliberately held back, and an elected overseeing body is fine with that. That’s the issue here.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Can’t see the district for the schools

  1. Sean

    Absolutely 100% correct. Excellent piece Jeremy!

  2. Cara

    Thanks Jeremy for pointing out some of the inherent issues with using standardized tests as a measurement tool for schools or students (especially the Ursula example). It’s really important to have transparency around this issue, not to find blame, but to illuminate the real issues.

    I do want to push back on the idea of pressure though. Students may not feel pressure in 10th grade, though many do. But students I know who have not had significant learning disabilities addressed or language issues and are literally getting through 2 or 3 tries without passing would disagree. And either way, the pressure teachers and administrators feel certainly has a negative impact on the learning experiences of the kids.

  3. zed

    Don’t worry about academic testing. Once the unions are gone, we’ll all be peasants again. Education, jobs and healthcare will be only for those who can pay their own way.

    The oppressive regimes aren’t just in foreign lands, Wisconsin is right here.

  4. jmstewart

    Cara, what should we learn from the “ursula” example? The children read a short passage about the little mermaid or salt and then they respond to it by answering a few questions. Its reading comprehension, not a test of pop-culture awareness

  5. Jim

    Jeremy, really good piece. I hope it gets into the print edition.

  6. Will W. W.

    This incident is really about the undue influence of unions in our public education and the elected officials who support them. And the need for transparency in an institution fraught with secrecy and paranoia.

    If anyone has taken the time to pursue Mayor Joe’s pre-election propaganda, they will see that he’s just about done an about face on all his promises. Everything he’s done since stepping into office has been a detriment to the majority of the population.

    We’ve seen his true colors. So it’s no understatement to call him, Mayor Joe the Union Ho.

  7. zed

    Will, you can say all you want about the open influence of organized labor, it’s not the politicians who court union support you have to look out for. It’s the one’s who get funds from PACs and clandestine outsiders. Anyway, SCOTUS has opened the floodgates so it’s open season on buying influence.

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