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A Massachusetts Student Writes: How MCAS Changed My Education

As the debate rages over the Common Core, one rather simple solution has been offered. Massachusetts is recognized as the state with the highest student performance in the nation. That state introduced the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) about twenty years ago, and in that time it became a very high stakes set of tests. Some have suggested that the federal government abandon efforts to coerce states into adopting the Common Core standards, and instead simply encourage everyone to use the Massachusetts state standards, and the MCAS to enforce them. This student has first-hand experience with how the rising stakes on the MCAS changed her education. It should remind us that our concerns about Common Core are not just about the new standards themselves, but the test and punish model they continue. [note: this post has been revised by the author since the original version was posted this morning.]

Guest post by Joan Brunetta.

I am currently a student at Williams College, but I grew up in the public school system in Cambridge, MA and was among the first cohort of kids to have every single MCAS test administered, 3rd grade through 10th. Over the course of my years in the Cambridge public school system, I saw the scope of my education narrowed with increased testing, from a curriculum that valued student growth, experiences, and emotions, to one that was often cold and hard and moved on whether or not we were ready.

Elementary School: Diverse and Challenging

Cambridge has an incredibly diverse group of kids in the school system--in the single public high school of 1600 kids, the students come from over 80 different countries and speak over 60 different languages.  About 40% of the students receive free and reduced lunch, while many others are the wealthier children of professors, engineers, artists, or other professionals. None of the elementary schools (all k-8 when I was in the system, now k-5 with middle schools) were selective or tracked, nor were they neighborhood schools. Parents instead ranked school choices and the schools were then balanced for socioeconomic status.

In my k-8 school, the incredible diversity of our community was valued highly by our curriculum, a curriculum designed, mulled over, and changed over the years by teachers, parents, and students. Our education was tailored to our environment--for example, in 5th grade, we studied the history of immigration in our school's neighborhood to prepare for making a large community mural and in 3rd grade, we studied the ecology of the nearby Charles River to begin to understand how environment and society interact throughout history. As young children, we spent time interviewing and talking to our fellow students about our varying countries and cultures, as well as interviewing and getting to know our custodians, principals, secretaries, and cafeteria workers. As older kids, we had many long class discussions about issues such as identity, racism, sexism, and what "America" and "American" mean and have meant throughout history. I can say without doubt that these conversations utterly changed the way that I see the world and all the people around me.

Middle School: Life-Changing

Our teachers had crafted an immersive curriculum in which each subject tied into the others by theme. If we learned about China in History, we read Chinese folk tales or novels in English, learned about the history of Chinese mathematicians in Math, and learned and created traditional Chinese art in Art. We practiced and studied such varied skills as public speaking, fiction writing, acting, interviewing, presenting to panels of professionals, editing and evaluating our own work, and--perhaps most importantly--teaching, learning, and collaborating with our peers consistently in our regular classes. These are skills that I use each and everyday, whether at college or not, but not skills that I have ever seen measured by a test. The "core" subjects come easily to me, but I was intensely shy as a child, something that I was made to work on through Kindergarten presentations, our mandatory 5th and 6th grade plays (one of which was a Shakespeare play), and 7th and 8th grade panel presentations. Some of my peers, whom I may have helped in math class, stepped up to help me talk more loudly, clearly, and confidently. Each time I speak in my college classes, give presentations, or interview for jobs, I still think back to what my peers and teachers taught me in those lessons that were totally invisible to the MCAS.

Our mixed 7/8th grade class did not take English and History but Humanities, which combined the two. I particularly remember my 7th grade year when the theme for Humanities was "American Identity." It was in this class that we explored what it meant to be American through point of view, race, class, gender identity, poetry, literature, art, music, the history of abolitionists and the suffragette movement, immigration past and present, language use, and, most memorably for my parents, through an in depth study of the Constitution and particularly the Bill of Rights. These classes were not just waves of facts--though we certainly learned our history and our facts. But the core of the class was the long discussions and in-depth projects and papers we created and wrote surrounding those facts--not just reports, but real essays, stories, and original presentations. We weren't told what to think. Instead, we were encouraged and pushed to grow the thinking skills that allowed us, as 11-13 year olds, to examine these issues and form opinions of our own.

Learning has never felt so enthralling, so all encompassing, and so life changing. College has nothing to compare with the conversations and learning I experienced there. My teachers and the curriculum they had designed challenged us to develop more complex thoughts and then helped us build up the capacity to express them, whether through talking, writing, or acting. As Sam Wineburg, an education researcher at Stanford, discussed in his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, complex thinking about such subjects as history are not skills that one simply develops with maturity, He writes, "The notion that such beliefs [that history is a collection of facts and truths] are naturally abandoned as students enter adulthood has neither data nor history on its side." I have not yet ever seen these complex thinking skills honored by any form of standardized testing. If anything, we were later taught in high school to simplify our thinking to score better on essay sections on the MCAS or to simply memorize rather than analyze facts or texts to score better on multiple choice. If we truly want, as the Common Core states, to develop critical thinking skills in our students, then we can't just test and test and test and build curricula for those tests. We need to build curricula that are for the students, and for their minds, not for the evaluating and scoring convenience of test-makers and companies. I had the privilege (although it should be a right) to grow up within a curriculum like that, and the experience has never left me. 

High School Changes

In the years I attended high school, in which more focus was centered on testing, much more of our learning was directed toward tests. I wrote hardly anything but five-paragraph essays in high school English and history classes before 11th grade. While I liked all of my teachers and enjoyed their classes, I was not, for the most part, nearly as engaged or interested in school as I had been before. During my freshman year, I was quite honestly depressed about the transition from my all-encompassing elementary classes to my fast-paced but bare-boned high school classes. It's true, these standards weren't made to help students like me (fast-learners) and situations like mine (middle-class with well educated parents). But it wasn't just me that felt this way--over the course of even the first few months of high school, I watched many of my peers become demoralized and angry about school, frustrated with their learning that they thought wasn't being measured by testing, and struggling with the feeling that they no longer meant anything to the school as a person, but simply as a score or grade.

 I do not meant to criticize my high school teachers or the school itself--there are many wonderful and amazing things about my high school. Our teachers are almost without exception incredibly dedicated and caring people, well educated and excited about exposing us to new ideas. They work ridiculously long hours and give individual help to students whenever they can. But the testing focus and the formulaic essays only took away from what our teachers could have provided--and our school was not nearly the worst of the test-prep schools. Our teachers often tried to "poke holes" in the curriculum, as one of them put it, to insert some more creativity or better discussions, but this, too, often felt segmented and confusing because of the time constraints--and because we were still taking tests that didn't measure any of this. The best, most interesting, and most intellectually challenging classes I took in high school were not the high level AP classes, which challenge mainly through the sheer amount of information, but the senior classes that teachers had been given the freedom to design themselves, with no MCAS or AP test writers peeping over their shoulders.

I know I am not the only one who feels this way because as a senior, a friend and I interviewed many of our peers--some of whom were headed to prestigious colleges and some of whom had struggled throughout high school--about their elementary and high school experience. All said essentially the same thing--that their elementary schools, the ones that were basically ignoring the tests, were more interesting, challenging, and supportive. Some students said that they actually remember more of what they learned in elementary school than of the material they had learned just the last semester in high school, because those pieces of history or literature were taught in a context and were talked about, not glossed over and memorized quickly. Others noted that they had actually read and written more in elementary school than high school.

What does "Rigor" Really Mean?

Recent standards and tests supposedly create "rigor." But while my high school classes had more work and more tests in the name of "rigor," it was simply that: more. More worksheets, more formulaic essays, more tests with more and more questions and parts. But less thought, less analysis, less discussions, and far less engaging content. Often people find this hard to believe--surely more work means more learning. But look:

Here's a rubric that my 7th and 8th grade teachers used for evaluating our essays. This is what real rigor looks like to me. Our papers were looked at as true pieces of writing, with respect to our ideas, our structure, and our use of language. If you compare this to the rubric for an MCAS essay or an AP essay (both of which apparently test for a "higher" level of critical thinking), the juxtaposition is truly laughable. I would particularly like to point out the 7/8th grade criteria for good organization: "The paper has a thoughtful structure that surfaces from the ideas, more than the ideas feeling constrained by the structure. Paragraphs and examples connect with fluid transitions when necessary to make the relationships between ideas clear. The organization is not predictable but artful and interesting in the way it supports the ideas." (emphasis my own)

To do this in writing is hard. It is a challenge. It is what real writers do when they write engaging essays, books, and articles. In MCAS essays and all the essays we wrote to prepare for MCAS essays, using an unpredictable structure was wrong. To do anything but constrain your ideas by the structure was very wrong. When we learned essay writing in high school, we were often handed a worksheet, already set up in five paragraphs, telling you exactly where to put the thesis, the topic sentences, and the "hook." In my freshman history class, I was told that each paragraph should have 5-9 sentences, regardless of the ideas presented in the paragraph. The ideas didn't matter--structure reigned supreme. There is nothing wrong with learning how to write in a structured and clear way--for many students, having certain structures to rely on or start with is very helpful. But when testing was involved, all of our writing was reduced to a single, simple, and restrictive structure--simply because that structure is simpler (and therefore cheaper) to grade. It is important to note here that I have heard multiple college professors specifically tell all their well-trained, test-ready students never to use this structure in their writing.

Furthermore, in elementary school, we were taught to edit our writing (a skill totally missing from any MCAS standards and tests and generally lacking from high school); we wrote at least 2 or 3 drafts each time. At the end of the year, we created a portfolio presentation, which we gave to parents, teachers, and community members about how we had grown over the year, what we still needed to work on, and what our goals were for next year. Almost all of my writing practices and skills that I use each day in college --and even more so, the ability to evaluate my own work and see what I need to do in the next draft or on the next paper--come from my middle school years in a school that was not following the guidelines and was refusing to prep us for tests.

The Best Curriculum is Created by Teachers

My elementary and my high school strove to provide every student with a quality, well-rounded education that was not constrained by testing. I feel that I received a wonderful education and I know that many of my peers feel the same way. But testing still has an effect. The curriculum that inspired me and my peers in elementary school was created by teachers empowered to design their own, a curriculum driven not by fear of tests, state takeover, salary levels, or job security, but by a sincere desire to teach.

I am not saying that every school and every curriculum has to be like my elementary schools--I'm sure there are many different styles of teaching and curriculum that give students the same opportunities for real literacy, engagement, and critical thinking. My point is only that none of those curricula can withstand a set of standards measured solely by high stakes testing. There are too many important pieces of learning that these tests don't and can't ever measure, and too much false progress they can and do measure on a regular basis--if you practice taking multiple choice questions, you will get better. My peers and I have all experienced this phenomenon. But in that extra hour you spent practicing, are you actually increasing your literacy? I think of it this way: did you just read for an hour? The answer is no-- you read a 10-minute segment of text and spent your hour eliminating answers you knew were false, looking for answers that looked correct but that seemed they might be misleading you, and making your best guess of the remaining answers. That is not literacy. That is trickery. When we measure all learning by testing, we teach students how to beat tests, not how to read, or write, or do math. And we certainly don't teach them to collaborate with others or to self-direct their learning. I don't object to standards--I think that they can be useful tools for schools and teachers. I have heard my own teachers say that the initial Common Core standards made them rethink their teaching strategies and goals in a useful way. But when teaching and learning are measured solely by standardized tests, we run the risk of--and I would argue, have already experienced--narrowing the education we could be providing kids.

What do you think? Did you witness education narrow towards test preparation over the past decade? How can we truly move beyond this paradigm?

Joan Brunetta is a student at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. 

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