Here’s a fascinating forum on MCAS and what it really means on the ground level, inside our schools.
Last fall, Adam Sweeting, who was running for School Committee in Ward 3, got together with Alex Pirie and the Welcome Project to organize this forum.
We’ve posted the audio file and transcribed some of the most interesting excerpts.
Listen to the entire forum link
Listen to Stephanie Tejada, a junior at Somerville High School (includes welcome at the beginning) link We haven’t transcribed this piece. The first person you hear is Adam, moderating.
Next, SHS teacher Kate Bunker-Neto explains how she tries to help kids pass the language test even if they can’t speak English. link Again, the first voice is Adam.
Kate Bunker-Neto has been teaching ESL at Somerville High School for over 20 years and last year she taught two one-semester ESL MCAS Prep courses there. Here’s a transcript, very slightly edited, of what she said:
First, I want to say that I’m just speaking for myself. I’m not representing the STA, the MTA, or Somerville Public Schools, just myself and how I’ve been working with MCAS, teaching and preparing the foreign students to pass the MCAS.
And I want to say first of all, is MCAS really bad? Well, I personally feel that it’s good to have some kind of an exit exam. I don’t really like that it’s high-stakes, and that it’s very, very hard for the foreign students.
Today the foreign students were taking the MEPA [Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment], which was originally designed to be the foreign students’ MCAS exam. Except, that the powers that be decided that would be unfair to the mainstream students. So the foreign students must take MCAS.
MCAS is also not the only reason that our foreign students drop out. There are other reasons. They drop out because they really need to make money, and they drop out because in some countries they only go to school till noon—they go from 7 till noon. They just don’t like studying from 7:30 till 2:30. Otherwise, they study in their country from noon until 5 pm—they get a choice. They just don’t like studying—certain kids. And others will drop out because of MCAS—some have heard their scores, left, and never come back, because they were just too discouraged. I think it was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The foreign students, when they first arrive, don’t know what a multiple-choice test is, don’t know words like multiple choice, don’t know words like “prompt” (we give “prompts,” not questions), and they don’t know what we mean by “short-answer question,” which is really one or two paragraphs, so my take was to teach them all this terminology throughout my—what?—four-month course, because I think they need just to have a grasp of all the language going on.
Another thing we had to work on was the numbering system, and trying to encourage them and make them really believe that they could pass, and actually helping them to pass, by showing them how it works.
So I got in one set of answers. This is all online from the DOE, from the November, 2006 retest. The first eight questions—this is too small for you to see—but the first eight questions are multiple choice.
For mainstream students, probably multiple choice would be where they could succeed, because it’s kind of fun and easy. You read and kind of take a good guess. But foreign students don’t know enough vocabulary. And there’s no way in four months to teach them the vocabulary to pass these really, really tough readings—some of them are 10th grade, 11th grade, and my students read at a second grade, third grade level—at this point. That’s when I teach them.
If they can answer the open response questions, which is one or two paragraphs, they’ll get four points. (Here’s another four-pointer, another four-pointer, another four-pointer.) It’s clear we have more multiple choice. (They’ll get one point, one point, one point.)
So we actually focused more, at least the person who helped me prepare the class and I focused more on the writing, even though writing is very painful, because that’s under their control. So it’s brutal but we have them writing constantly.
We tell them, there are four points. If you have an opening sentence—that’s one point. If you have a closing sentence, that’s a point. If you draw out some quotes, and use quotation marks. (This is really a killer. It’s very hard to get my kids to use quotation marks.) If they’ll do that, they might get another point.
So they can accrue enough points to pass, without getting too many multiple choice correct. And this is probably killing people who love fine literature, to hear this, but this test wasn’t made to help foreign students pass or appreciate literature.
The long composition is scored like this: The long composition is about a novel of their choice, or a piece of literature that they have read previously, that they cannot bring to the test with them. I try and encourage the kids to, you know, out of a possible 20, maybe you can get 14. Maybe you can get a 10. But you get more points here. So that they don’t give up. Because a lot of kids will just give up, faced with the fact that they have to write a few paragraphs about a novel. It is really pretty tough.
The multiple choice questions in November, 2006, would give you 36 points. Open response, that would give you 12 points. The long comp could give you 20. [But] you only need 36 to pass, or in certain years it might be 40. This would translate into the magic 220 points.
So we try to encourage them that they only have to get half this number right. So it’s sort of cheer leading for them, in a way. We give a lot of encouragement: don’t give up, you only have to get half way through.
Of course, that could change. In two more years, they’ll go up to 240, and I don’t know how people are going to work harder than we are already. I don’t know what’s going to happen but we’re going to have to work much harder, maybe find some new techniques.
Now, I don’t want to imply that we work at a very low level, but some students come to my class on MCAS, or last year they did, not knowing the past tense, barely knowing English, and they had to take the exam in November.
Well, they read this little book called Tinker’s Farm [only 15 pages long and entirely written in the present tense], and this was their piece of literature. And two or three actually passed, using this as their long composition. So I’m very proud of that.
Of course, other kids wrote about Huckleberry Finn because they were doing that in their 10th grade English class.
Sorry, I didn’t teach 10th graders. I teach 11th graders or 10th graders who failed the year before and are repeating, but they were in B level ESL, they were reading Huckleberry Finn in an abridged version. Some of them were able to pass with that, too.
My students, some of them, use this book, some use The Secret Garden, and some use Forest Gump, which I found in Spanish. Because there is no rule you have to read the book in English. You just have to read the book and remember enough details to be able to write a composition from scratch. So I was very pleased. [short interchange/break]
That was basically all that we did. I had other things I could have said but those were the main successes, the main strategies that I worked with.
Oh, I forgot one thing, which was changing the prompt into an introductory sentence, and then reusing it as a conclusion.
It was a killer, but we went for weeks and weeks crossing out the part of the question that was a prompt, and then highlighting in yellow the words that they would reuse. I don’t know—I don’t know, does that sound crazy?—and they got it.
For example, “From a piece of literature you have read, in or out of school, select…” We crossed that all out. “…a character with the ability to inspire or lead others.” And we crossed out all the rest. And then we would say, “Forest Gump, from the book Forest Gump, was a character with the ability to inspire or lead others.”
This is primitive! It may sound very shocking, but I got the kids who barely knew any English to be able to do that—to recognize what was a prompt and what was content, and then rework it to make a closing sentence. So this is the level that I was dealing on. [interruption and short exchange]
Well, they have five shots. That’s what we keep telling them. If they do it in 10th grade once, twice in 11th and twice in 12th, that’s five chances, and I really tell them at the beginning, don’t worry, don’t get stressed out, don’t get stressed out. Don’t quit school! You may not pass till your fourth or fifth try. And many do pass earlier than that if they were really educated in their country.
Listen to State Rep. Carl Sciortino’s presentation link (Ditto: Adam introduces him. No transcript.)
Carl has filed a bill to change the Department of Education’s edict that students must pass MCAS to get a high school diploma.
Listen to Ward 7 School Committee member Mary Jo Rossetti link (No transcript of this.)