MCAS test flunks at city schools

Michael Maguire, Boston Herald, January 28, 2017

All parents and students know about the MCAS but few know its origin. The MCAS was the state Legislature’s response to the McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education lawsuit. McDuffy charged that poorer communities in Massachusetts were not receiving an equitable education relative to the wealthier towns. Nearly a quarter of a century later our “gateway” communities are still treated unfairly by the state.

The Ed Reform Act of 1993 gave us the MCAS — an acronym for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. The current version has a mathematics, English language arts, and science component — hardly comprehensive. And the state’s strict adherence to the MCAS aids the wealthier towns and punishes the poorer towns — in direct violation of McDuffy.

The state sorts districts into five levels based upon arbitrary criteria. The trouble is that school districts are not compared to an empirical standard but instead are compared to each other. The lowest 20 percent of districts are automatically in the lowest categories. Not even the students of Lake Wobegon would be able to avoid this trap. And a trap it is as the impoverished districts will never surpass their wealthier counterparts because of the testing criteria itself.

We don’t need to spend millions of dollars each year on bubble tests to tell us that, generally speaking, suburban students will outperform inner-city kids.

Christopher Tienken, author of “Defying Standardization,” has written an algorithm to predict statewide test results based upon census factors within a district like the percentage of single-parent families, the percentage of high school and/or college graduates, and the percentage of families living in poverty. Tienken has run his predictive algorithm in New Jersey, Connecticut and Iowa and has successfully predicted that results of the high-stakes tests 60 percent to 80 percent of the time.

Any teacher could tell you the same thing without a complex formula.

But if we are to have “standards” by which schools are to be “measured,” then we ought to expand beyond math, English, and science. Including art and music would be fantastic, but by their very nature they are hard to quantify. However, foreign language acquisition is both necessary for our modern world and is not difficult to measure.

Roughly half of the students in the Boston Public Schools learned another language before learning English. Imagine if their marketable bilingual skills were celebrated by the MCAS and the state’s ranking system.

If suburban districts with virtually 100 percent native English speakers had only a few years to get their students to master a new language, then perhaps suburban superintendents would understand the impossible pressure placed upon urban superintendents by the demands of the English language MCAS. How is it remotely fair that students who arrive in the Boston Public Schools midyear with no English skills must take the same MCAS as students who grew up with a stay-at-home parent who spoke English to them every day since birth?

A popular quotation (often incorrectly ascribed to Albert Einstein) states “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.”

Far from being underperforming, urban Level 5-rated schools are teaming with intelligent students. Let’s recognize their achievements in as many ways, and languages, as possible.

Michael Maguire teaches Latin and ancient Greek at Boston Latin Academy and serves on the Executive Board of the Boston Teachers Union. His views are his own.