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Mass. Teachers Blast State Tests in New TV Ads

By John Gehring — November 22, 2000 6 min read
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Massachusetts’ largest teachers’ union, in a highly unusual move, has launched a biting, $600,000 advertising campaign that attacks the state’s high-stakes accountability tests. The step drew an immediate rebuke from top state officials.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association began running a television ad Nov. 8 that shows a clock ticking as nervous students struggle through a Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, which three years from now students must pass in English and mathematics to graduate.

A somber voice-over to the 30- second ad derides the exams as “flawed and unfair” and criticizes the “one-size fits-all, high-stakes, do-or-die MCAS test.” The advertisement urges viewers to “Say No to the MCAS Graduation Requirement.”

The commercial began airing a week before the state released MCAS scores from the spring that showed just incremental gains from last year’s scores, and a week after the Massachusetts Association of School Committees passed a resolution calling for the suspension of the MCAS as a graduation requirement. The ads now running in the Boston and Springfield television markets, and on cable TV in the Berkshire Hills region, will be aired until through Dec. 3.

Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican, lashed out at the ad campaign as “irresponsible” and said the union had reneged on an agreement undergirding the 1993 state law that linked more education funding to strong accountability measures. Michael Sentance, the governor’s education adviser, called the commercial “a series of very clever, manipulative images” that amounts to “a very cynical attempt on the part of the teachers’ union to scare people away from reforming schools.”

And David P. Driscoll, Massachusetts’ education commissioner, said in a statement that “it is ironic to me that at a time when 80 percent of the public supports high standards and a strong test for graduation, the MTA does not.”

But Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the union, a 90,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, said the commercial was intended to jump-start conversation about the exams and fell within the union’s effort to promote a system that creates accountability for meeting high educational standards through multiple measures. Union leaders have pledged to press for legislation that would halt the practice of basing graduation on student test scores and would create an alternative accountability system.

Most teachers have deep reservations about the exams and believe that “denying students a diploma and a lifetime of opportunity based on a single flawed and unfair test is not the way to go,” Mr. Gorrie said.

Given each year to 4th, 8th, and 10th graders as part of the broad education improvement law passed seven years ago, the 3-year-old exams have been denounced by some students and educators from around the state. Last spring, for instance, hundreds of students boycotted the exams and rallied on Boston Common to protest the testing system. (“Students Boycott Tests in Mass. To Protest Emphasis on Exams,” April 19, 2000.)

Opponents also have held a number of “speak outs” and community forums to criticize the exams. Those events have drawn the support of a loose coalition of activists that includes progressive educators who contend that the exams are an inadequate measure of student achievement.

Dispute Not Unique

A backlash against high- stakes exams has arisen in several other states, including Colorado and Wisconsin, as educators and policymakers try to step through a minefield of conflicting ideas on how best to hold students and schools accountable for achievement. Those debates have been further complicated by questions surrounding the evaluation of students who speak English as a second language, students in special education, and those enrolled in programs such as vocational education.

“This is not an issue that is unique by any means to Massachusetts,” said Kathy Christie, the director of the information clearinghouse at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Twenty- four states now require students to attain a minimum score on a state assessment to earn a diploma.

While requiring students to pass graduation tests has engendered controversy in some states, an opinion poll released in October by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, New York City-based opinion-research organization, found that a majority of parents surveyed strongly approve of policies to require high school exit exams and end social promotion—the practice of promoting academically unprepared students to the next grade to keep up their with their peers. (“Polls Dispute a ‘Backlash’ To Standards,” Oct. 11, 2000.)

“Testing is fine if it is done right,” said Robert M. Hauser, the chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who co-edited a report on high-stakes testing for the National Research Council that was requested by the Clinton administration in 1997. The council’s report advises against relying on a single assessment to determine graduation or promotion, among other recommendations.

MCAS results from last spring, released Nov. 13, showed slight gains in most subjects for 4th, 8th, and 10th graders. Forty-nine percent of 10th graders failed either the math or English portion of the 2000 test—or both portions—compared with 55 percent who failed at least one of those sections in 1999. Scores for minority students continued to lag. Seventy-seven percent of black sophomores and 79 percent of Hispanic sophomores failed the math section of the exam, for example.

Pressure on Teachers

Mary Ginley, who was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 1998, believes the MCAS has put teachers under “enormous pressure” to prepare students for the tests.

“Teachers are doing things that are developmentally inappropriate with students because they are trying to get through a certain amount of material before students take the MCAS,” said the 2nd grade teacher at Center Middle School in Longmeadow, Mass.

Kathleen Kelley, the president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, a 20,000- member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, believes that while the MCAS has been an important tool for improving schools, it is unfair to hold teachers and students accountable for results on an exam that has not been completely aligned with evolving curriculum frameworks.

“The consistency and stability isn’t there,” she said, adding that an outside evaluation of the exam was needed.

But Ellen Guiney, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit public education fund that works mainly in urban schools, said the MCAS has helped change the culture of city schools. “It has raised expectations,” she said. “Graduating kids for seat time didn’t do anyone any favors.”

S. Paul Reville, who leads the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform at Harvard University and helped write the education law that ushered in the MCAS system when he was a state school board member, called the testing program an important impetus for change.

But he fears that the current testing timeline could undermine the state’s reform efforts by unfairly requiring students to meet high standards before teachers are held accountable for enabling them to do so. “My worry is testing will become confused with reform as a whole, and advocates who hold too rigid a view of the MCAS may inadvertently contribute to the demise of the whole reform system,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mass. Teachers Blast State Tests in New TV Ads

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