Students Boycott Tests in Mass. To Protest Emphasis on Exams

By John Gehring — April 19, 2000 3 min read
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In a protest against their state’s embrace of high-stakes testing, hundreds of Massachusetts high school students and a handful of 4th and 8th graders refused last week to take part in tests that are a linchpin of the state’s standards-based accountability system.

Students at roughly a dozen schools around the state joined in the boycott, which was launched on the first of 11 consecutive days that the state had set aside this month for administering the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams.

The tests are administered each year to 4th, 8th, and 10th graders, as part of a sweeping package of education measures enacted by the state in 1993. Students will have to pass MCAS tests in English and mathematics in order to graduate, starting in 2003.

Students from across the state organized the boycott to protest what they say is a wave of testing that does not respect the varied skills of students and saps teachers’ ability to structure creative classes. Some students staged similar protests at scattered sites around the state last year as well.

The boycott was hailed by some members of a loose coalition of critics in the state, including some prominent educators and intellectuals, who have been denouncing the MCAS as part of their opposition to the standards-based reform movement that has rapidly put down roots across the country in the past decade. (“CON-Test,” April 5, 2000.)

Sixteen-year-old Chris Carmody, a sophomore at Arlington High School near Boston, was one of 26 students at the school suspended after refusing to take the test.

“We are not opposed to accountability at all, but under the state’s education reform law there is supposed to be multiple forms of assessment,” Mr. Carmody said. “A teacher wouldn’t take a single test and make it count for a whole semester. To take a test and make it count for 12 years of schooling seems absurd to me.”

No Definitive Numbers

In recent months, parents, teachers, and students have been vocal in opposing state tests in Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Texas, and other states. Such efforts have fueled concerns among policymakers about a growing backlash to standards-based reform.

Last week in Massachusetts, no definitive figures were available on the number of students statewide who boycotted the tests.

But in Cambridge alone, about 100 students from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School boycotted the test. On April 12, the first day of testing, the students gathered in the high school’s auditorium with members of the American Civil Liberties Union and FairTest, a Cambridge-based advocacy group that is a leading national critic of standardized testing.

Penalties handed down against the protesters varied from school to school. At Cambridge Rindge and Latin, which saw the largest number of protesters, school officials imposed no punishments if students took part in constructive work during the time the test was given.

In Brookline, by contrast, about 20 high school students were given grades of zero, which will be factored into their fourth-quarter averages unless they “buy back” their zero by writing papers on Brown v. Board of Education and other Supreme Court decisions, according to a press release issued by the school’s headmaster.

State Commissioner of Education David P. Driscoll issued a brief statement calling the number of students who skipped the test “minor.”

“The people of Massachusetts should be very proud of the great majority of administrators, teachers, and students who took the test seriously today, and they should be commended,” Mr. Driscoll said.

Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn, a prominent critic of what he calls the “standards and testing juggernaut,” called the students’ actions an inspiration and said he believed they had made state education officials nervous.

“They are trying to dismiss this as a fringe campaign,” he said.

But Marcel LaFlamme, the 17-year-old chairman of the state board of education’s student-advisory panel, said he believes the protesters could have found more effective and respectful ways to air their concerns.

Mr. LaFlamme, who along with other students from around the state held a press conference at the state education department to discuss the boycott, said that he supported the need for a test to measure students’ skills. And he suggested that even some critics of the MCAS were beginning to see its value.

“People are starting to warm up to the fact that this is not a punitive, crack-down-on-students type of thing,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Students Boycott Tests in Mass. To Protest Emphasis on Exams


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