Every year in the spring the arguments begin to erupt about MCAS testing, in Massachusetts. MCAS is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a series of exams given to students to determine progress and graduation status. The debate continues to rage over the types of tests, the quality and quantity of tests, and the very nature of testing itself. Accountability is a word thrown in politically on both sides from time to time. Rarely do people truly consider the honest question of our state standards. The MCAS questions are clear and easy enough to evaluate. Anyone can download the previous exams. If you have knowledge of the subject matter, making a judgment regarding the quality of the questions and challenging any mistakes found is not hard. In fact this has become something of a local contest among some.
What is less often challenged, questioned, and examined are the frameworks that these tests are supposed to uphold. I would argue that the tests are more easily understood and reflected upon than the standards that they are written to assess. It always struck me as oddly profound that the math strands overview begins with a quote from Through the Looking Glass. One does generally not look to the Queen as an example for clarity, wisdom, and planning. When one wonders why we struggle to make the frameworks fit, we only have to start with where the Massachusetts education system seeks inspiration.
In preparing to write this article I went back to review the state elementary science standards that were updated in 2006, to make sure my statements were accurate. The ideas for what students should learn are wonderful. However, I sat on a panel of educators who wanted to align the local curriculum with the state standards so we were not duplicating efforts and we were not leaving curriculum out. The state in its infinite wisdom gave us wonderful goals and material to teach, but never looked at the time frame in which we had to teach the material. Testing was not the concern, just a desire to give kids the education mandated by the state. We were forced to conclude that with our schedule, completing the assigned material in a year was not possible. That was with assigning cross curriculum projects, using specialists’ periods to add additional time on task, and narrowing our focus to just the major framework goals. This was only focusing on our science curriculum. There was still the social studies curriculum that was equally challenging and not always cooperative and well suited for cross curricular activities with our science units. Weather and history, for instance, do have some wonderful cross curricular discussions and exercises. Other units are not as well tied together. The state had planned elementary curriculum as if each subject area was taught in isolation, not as part of a whole curriculum. Sometimes the test is not the villain. It is the lack of planning that resulted tests created that have material that has not been taught.
That is one of the things I like about the MCAS tests. They demonstrate clearly what the state said we are supposed to teach and then provide tools to helps us evaluate the many reasons why our students have not learned the material. I have never believed that one test can tell you everything. However, tests can teach you something if you are willing to learn. For instance, during a professional teacher’s day, we spent hours at grade level meetings evaluating our math scores to determine why our students were not fairing as well as expected. The focus was not on small anomalies, but specific questions that students missed consistently, in large numbers. After opening the test, reading the questions, there were some valuable conclusions.
First, there were some questions that covered material that we did not have in our math textbooks. This has been a consistent issue for many teachers I have spoken with who have participated in this process. Each publisher has holes in their programs. The MCAS is one of the ways we find them. Second, we did find there were differences among teachers. We each had areas of strengths and weaknesses that were reflected in our results. Third, when we looked back over two years worth of results, we had data that showed this process was supported by consistency in findings. While the specific questions were different, the general areas were the same. Fourth, we discovered that we needed to diversify the types of math vocabulary we were using. Our students became used to the way problems were presented in our math programs. While they were scoring high on our tests, when the vocabulary changed, the problems looked different, or they were presented with similar answers, they were shaken in their ability to perform those tasks, we thought they could do.
That was all valuable information if people could put aside personal feelings and work towards a goal of improvement. What came of our exercise is starting to use the MCAS math questions to diversify our math program. The questions were printed and added to worksheets we were using in the classroom, as demonstration problems, and as challenge problems for independent learners. We were able to use free resources, to improve our instruction. Teachers started sharing ideas in the areas they were scoring well in and got help in the areas they were weaker in. We talked about what worked.
The complaint came that we were teaching to the test. My argument was that we were in fact teaching to the standards. The questions found on the test, in many cases were more challenging than anything found in our textbooks. The language provided a chance to learn new math vocabulary, try new strategies, and have experience seeing problems presented in new ways. I actually gave some of the problems to a private school colleague to use in her math program. She had no need to pass the MCAS, but was looking for inexpensive resources to challenge her students. There is nothing better for a teacher than free.
State standards need to reflect the number of hours students spend in school a day, not a fantasy. I think you can find many who will at least privately agree with that statement. There does need to be a means to evaluate whether the standards assigned are being achieved. The problem continues to be one of honest reflection not turning to politics and the blame game. Should there be obvious patterns that occur in MCAS evaluations, then curriculum needs to be evaluated to determine if there are in fact holes. All too often, we are sold on a product as being the answer to all our educational needs. Historically we know that is not possible, but we keep buying the sales pitch all the same. If material is not covered, then alternatives need to be provided, so the teacher can fulfill his or her obligation. It should not be the job of the teacher to buy curriculum. Should further training be required, then that needs to be handled. We also need to examine issues of attendance, school transfers, and other concerns when evaluating data. Not every failure is a result of curriculum or teacher. There are always other issues that need to be addressed and should not be lumped into the same discussion.
Massachusetts Department of Education Curriculum Frameworks:http://www.doe.mass.edu/frameworks/current.html