Just two days before the release of a report calling Massachusetts’ system of academic standards and assessments a national model, the state last week released test results showing dramatic increases among the first cohort of students needing to pass the high-profile exams to earn a diploma.
Many who lauded the newly released 10th grade scores, along with the report from Achieve Inc.—a national organization that advocates standards-based education policies—saw them as bolstering arguments made by state officials that the 4-year-old Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System deserves to be a pillar of the state’s efforts to improve schools.
Proponents of the MCAS exams—which have been the target of boycotts and rallies, as well as a well- financed advertising campaign by the state’s largest teachers’ union—have argued that troubling failure rates would decline as soon as passing the exams became a graduation requirement. They viewed the most recent scores for the class of 2003, the first group of students required to pass the exams in mathematics and English to graduate, as lending legitimacy to that claim.
Critics questioned that view and vowed to continue what has emerged as one of the nation’s most vociferous campaigns against a state testing program.
Figures released Oct. 15 show that 82 percent of all 10th grade test-takers passed the English/language arts exam, up from 66 percent last year. Seventy- five percent of 10th graders passed the mathematics exam, compared with 55 percent last year.
Overall, 67 percent of the class of 2003 scored well enough to meet the graduation requirement on the first try. Students who did not meet that threshold will have four more chances to take and pass a shortened version of the test to reach a passing score.
State Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll said the results were an endorsement of Massachusetts’ efforts to link rigorous standards with comprehensive assessments.
“It’s tremendous news, and it indicates that the ideas of standards-based reform work,” Mr. Driscoll said. “This isn’t just about students doing well because it counted. It’s about the day-to-day hard work of parents and teachers. When you expect a lot from kids, they will come through. The critics are now in neutral, if not in reverse.”
Acting Gov. Jane Swift also praised the direction of education policies in her state. “Our children have accepted the challenge of high standards with enthusiasm and energy,” Gov. Swift said in a statement.
The legislature, she noted, has spent $80 million over the past three years for remedial help and an additional $10 million this year specifically for high school juniors who need extra support to pass the exams.
In a report released Oct. 17, Achieve concurred that Massachusetts’ system of standards and assessments provides a strong foundation on which to build state education policy. The organization was formed in 1996 by governors and business leaders and has offices in Cambridge, Mass., and Washington.
Achieve evaluated the state’s K-12 math standards and 10th grade MCAS tests in English/language arts and math during the spring and summer of this year at the request of the Massachusetts education department.
“The grade 10 tests are rigorous yet reasonable,” states the report, titled “Measuring Up: A Report on Education Standards and Assessments for Massachusetts.”
“Many students should be able to pass these tests by the end of the 10th grade,” it says, “and it is realistic to expect that other students, given sufficient curriculum and teaching support, should be able to meet the standards by the end of high school.”
Robert Schwartz, Achieve’s president, lauded the state’s education improvement efforts. “Of the 10 states we’ve examined in depth, a few have good standards and a few have good tests. Massachusetts is the only state we’ve seen where both are of high quality,” Mr. Schwartz said in a statement.
Daniel M. Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University who has analyzed state testing systems for years, said the Achieve report can’t explain why scores in Massachusetts climbed so steeply. It’s too early to tell, he said, what the rising scores may mean without more analysis.
In other states, Mr. Koretz said, dramatic improvements have stemmed from a mixed bag of genuine learning gains and a curriculum that has narrowed toward the demands of a particular test.
“We just can’t tell without more evaluation whether there is substantial improvement, or some teachers are taking more shortcuts. It’s probably both,” he said. “We can’t be confident the scores represent the kind of instructional improvement we want to see.”
Individual scores from schools and districts, along with demographic breakdowns of scores, will be released by the state education department in the coming weeks.
Given each spring in grades 3- 10, the MCAS tests students in subjects such as English, math, science, history, and social studies, using a combination of multiple-choice, short- answer, and essay questions.
While critics of the MCAS applauded the improvement in scores, they said the movement against having a single test that determines whether a student graduates would not lose steam.
“The results were quite extraordinary, but basing a child’s future on one test is still a major problem,” said Kathy Kelley, the president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, a 21,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “This one test has become the be-all and end-all of education reform in Massachusetts. Real estate agents base their advertising on it.”
Alfie Kohn, an author and prominent critic of standardized testing who lives in Belmont, Mass., said improvements on the MCAS don’t mean students are necessarily receiving a better education. A rise in test scores could in fact be bad news, he argued, because it may mean that teachers are focusing too much time on test preparation and exercises that stress drills and repetition at the expense of more substantive activities.
Claims to the contrary, he argued, are “typical of politicians and corporate officials who would want us to believe that improved test scores are tantamount to learning.” Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the 90,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said that while the state does have strong standards and the MCAS has some merits as a testing system, “we still hold to the tenet that a single test shouldn’t be viewed in isolation.”
Mr. Gorrie’s union, the state’s largest, ran a $600,000 advertising campaign last year that attacked the MCAS as “flawed and unfair.” (“Mass. Teachers Blast State Tests in New TV Ads,” Nov. 22, 2000.)
Mr. Gorrie said that while the improved scores on the most recent MCAS may change the dynamics of the debate about the exams in the state, “this does not change the debate about how we should use test scores. We’re not saying students don’t need basic skills, but it’s a matter of how you use the test.”
Jackie King, an organizer with the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, or CARE, a statewide group of parents and educators, worries that an intense focus on the MCAS has suffocated flexibility in the classroom. She has allowed her two sons in the 7,600-student Cambridge school system to boycott the exams.
“The MCAS isn’t a fair test or a valid way for measuring what kids are doing,” she said. “It damages the curriculum. Many of the in-depth, exploration courses are pushed aside. Is education improved because more kids are passing the test? We don’t think so.”