Mass. Test Scores Offer Only a Handheld ‘Mirror’

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To the Editor:

A letter from Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll ("Mass. Schools Chief Offers ‘Feel-Bad Education’ Cure," Letters, Oct. 27, 2004) said he agrees with Alfie Kohn ("Feel-Bad Education," Commentary, Sept. 15, 2004) that in many classrooms and schools, high-stakes testing has resulted in scripted lessons focused on raising scores, and that this takes the joy out of learning.

The agreement will be news to many in Massachusetts. After all, Mr. Driscoll and the state board of education’s chairman, James A. Peyser, have cited children’s tears over the state exam as proof that “real learning” is finally taking place. In 1999, Mr. Driscoll told The Boston Globe, “There’s a lot of pressure. Fourth graders are crying, but that’s the way the world is.”

Until now, state education leaders have conveyed the message that the high-stakes test is a necessary solution to unfocused instruction and low expectations. It’s a step in the right direction if Mr. Driscoll now views such rote instruction as a problem. But it seems disingenuous to press teachers to teach to the test and then blame them for taking the joy out of learning.

It’s troubling, too, that Mr. Driscoll believes the state test scores mirror the true picture of education in Massachusetts. As many parents and teachers already know, if the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System is a mirror, it’s a handheld one, reflecting only one small part of what’s happening in our schools. What the MCAS mirror doesn’t capture includes rising attrition and grade failure, particularly among minority students. It leaves out schools’ de-emphasizing or eliminating art, music, physical education, recess, even science. And it fails to show an increasingly undemocratic oversight of public education.

Mr. Driscoll uses the analogy of cheating dieters who wonder why they aren’t losing weight. Here’s my analogy: It’s as if a weightlifter had decided to work on his biceps to the exclusion of the rest of his body. The handheld mirror shows improving tone and muscle mass. Meanwhile, the rest of his body is in poor shape. Massachusetts and the rest of the country need a mirror that takes in the whole picture, not just math and English test scores.

Lisa Guisbond
National Center for Fair &
Open Testing (FairTest)
Cambridge, Mass.

Vol. 24, Issue 11, Page 37

Published in Print: November 10, 2004, as Mass. Test Scores Offer Only a Handheld ‘Mirror’

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