Here’s a radical idea for the Somerville schools: Stop trying to boost MCAS scores. Except in high school.
I don’t mean stop teaching, but let’s turn off the laser focus on raising scores.
An example of the difference:
Somerville teachers are being encouraged to put up “data walls” in their classrooms with each child’s test score, or score growth, or some sort of class ranking of scores, represented on a chart. The children are not identified by their real names, but they all know where they are on the wall.
The low kid in the class sees him or herself at the bottom every day and the top kid sees him or herself at the top. That’s bad for both of them. And it’s teaching them nothing except the false lesson that nothing matters in life but your ability to tackle a standardized test.
The intention is to motivate students to score higher so our schools will make “Adequate Yearly Progress” under No Child Left Behind, but:
1: That’s a hopeless quest.
2: It’s not helping our kids develop their academic skills or anything else that we want from an education.
Let’s start with 1: It’s hopeless.
No school in the city is making the No Child Left Behind’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” except the Brown, which has by far the fewest low-income students. (The charter school didn’t make it.) See for yourself on the Department of Education’s web site.
Somerville schools can never catch up because NCLB’s standards keep rising. If a school somehow did manage to make the standard one year, it would soon flunk again. Even the Brown is doomed.
We’re no different from the rest of the state and the country. Everywhere, more and more schools are failing this impossible test, and low-income schools are the first to fail. In Massachusetts, 57 percent of all schools failed this year.
By 2014, NCLB says every American student must be “proficient” in language arts and math. That year, nearly every school in America will fail because no nation has ever come close to that standard, unless we set a very low level for what we mean by “proficient.” Some states have tried to help their schools pass by dumbing down their definitions of “proficient,” but who are they fooling?
Congress will probably change the law before everybody flunks. Let’s hope the new version bears some relation to reality.
Meanwhile, we have teachers who want to teach and kids who want to, and need to, learn. Why waste their time and turn them off to school with test prep and score competition?
Which brings us to 2: It’s not helping our kids.
If test prep helped kids learn valuable skills, it might be worth the pain. But we have scientific proof that it doesn’t. Prepping for a standardized test—reviewing sample questions, analyzing the kinds of questions likely to appear, staging competitions and pep rallies—these strategies are being carried out all over the America, especially in schools with large numbers of low-income kids. This experiment has been going on since NCLB passed in 2002.
And the results are in!
There’s a national standardized test that’s given to samples of students across the country called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Nobody preps for this test because there are no consequences for low scores. Looking at NAEP scores over the past decade, you would never know that anything was changing in our schools. Here’s an article that shows the NAEP trends and goes into more depth.
Even before NCLB, national studies showed high-stakes testing has little or no effect on student achievement. Those studies were ignored by Congress in their desire to “do something” about students who don’t learn enough in school—preferably something cheap.
But test scores on many state tests, including MCAS, have gone up. Doesn’t that mean kids are learning more? No, it doesn’t.
Scores on the state tests are rising because those scores determine success or failure under NCLB. Schools are putting massive efforts into boosting scores on those tests. The NAEP results show that the improvement doesn’t even carry over to a different standardized test, never mind to real life situations. The emperor has no clothes.
(Massachusetts has climbed to the top on the NAEP, but probably not because of MCAS. The rise in Massachusetts is small—we were always near the summit. And other states don’t show even that modest improvement on the NAEP, although their state test scores have gone up, too.)
It turns out that when you attach major consequences to scores on a particular test, that test stops being a valid measure of achievement. This phenomenon is well accepted among testing experts and even has its own name: Campbell’s Law. All across the country, schools are ramping up test prep. Scores go up, but real achievement doesn’t.
That may protect the grown-ups, but it doesn’t help the kids.
The situation in our high school is different. Until the state policy changes, students will have to pass the high school MCAS to get a diploma, and they do need that piece of paper, so there’s a reason to help them pass MCAS even if test prep doesn’t improve their skills.
In elementary school, let’s do everything we can to help kids learn and love learning. But when it comes to test prep, let’s just say, “No!”