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October 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 2

What's Been Lost in the Bubbles

Massachusetts schools don't need another standardized test. They need a broader definition of excellence.

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In Massachusetts, we are celebrating the 15th anniversary of the passage of the state's 1993 Education Reform Act (commonly known as Ed Reform). Those who promoted this legislation promised it would narrow the achievement gap while raising standards. A cornerstone of this law is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a statewide testing program that measures students' performance on learning objectives defined by the state's curriculum framework.
As a public school educator who has seen the changes wrought by Ed Reform, I'm not sure what we're celebrating. The stated intention of this testing program was to radically rethink how we measure and communicate student progress on learning objectives, and the law's champions indicated that schools could use multiple measures to demonstrate students' proficiency. Yet MCAS does not include multiple ways to demonstrate competencies; it is a fill-in-the-bubble test. Stakes are high, as schools' scores are printed in the newspaper and schools are required to demonstrate adequate yearly progress. Portfolios, exhibitions, and other alternative assessments have taken a back seat in most schools.
In addition, black and Latino students in Boston are now more than twice as likely as white and Asian youth to drop out of high school, according to data from the Boston Youth Transition Task Force (2006). High-stakes exams have the greatest negative effect on low-income students, minority students, and low achievers. Beginning with the class of 2003, all Massachusetts students must pass the MCAS to graduate: Student interviews suggest that this pressure may drive students away from school (Capodilupo & Wheelock, 2000). As students leave school at younger ages, average scores on the MCAS and graduation rates may increase, but young people are lost to our education system.
Ed Reform also came with a pledge to increase funding to urban schools. In actuality, the state did provide additional funding to urban schools like the one I lead, but as test scores improved, these extra funds were taken away.
Since 1998, when I helped found the Boston Arts Academy, five years after the state enacted MCAS, our curriculum has become narrower and less engaging, even though we're a public school focused on the arts. Our school has had to sacrifice breadth in science teaching. We spent seven years developing a rigorous, engaging curriculum that combined physical and biological sciences and increased in complexity each year. As a result of MCAS testing, we returned to a “layer-cake approach”—teaching first physical science (which we incorporate into an engineering course), then chemistry, then biology, all to ensure that students pass the state tests (Nathan, 2002b).
Meanwhile, the issues surrounding the passage of Ed Reform, such as the dropout rate and students' lack of basic skills, are as much a problem now as they were when the legislation passed.
What do these realities mean for school leaders who feel hamstrung by MCAS requirements? I think they mean that we need to hold in our minds what true excellence in learning looks like and struggle to maintain it. And we need to keep putting out the message that excellence must be defined more broadly than getting all the bubbles filled in correctly. The following example describes the kind of rich instructional practice that we may have to abandon this instructional year when MCAS will add history to the high school subjects tested.

A Case Study of Excellence

As part of our Humanities 3 class for juniors, our students participate in in-depth peer-critique sessions. In their study of global and U.S. history and literature from 1945 to the present, they explore political and social conditions characteristic of the world, such as how arms races develop and how global alliances form and shift. We urge them to seek explanations for these conditions to facilitate their own participation in—and pursuit of—democracy.
We also help Humanities 3 students gain excellent writing skills by asking them to help one another deepen their thinking and communicate that thinking more precisely. As part of a major writing assignment, each student receives a first (anonymous) draft of two other students' papers and prepares a critique designed to improve those drafts. On a given day, students who have exchanged papers come together; each student orally shares his or her critique, and each writer has a chance to respond.
At the beginning of one such critique session, Adrienne, Tony, and Veronica sit at a table. They shuffle nervously through the papers before them until Mr. Garcia, their teacher, says,We'll begin with Adrienne asking Tony about his draft. Remember, today is about your skills as a critical reader. You will all have an opportunity to rewrite your papers using this feedback and some from me as well. Today is not about being defensive, but about soaking up criticism and getting better.
Adrienne picks up her notes and begins,It's hard to identify your thesis. I know your topic is the Black Panthers and their role in the civil rights movement, but I think it would have helped if you'd have read this draft aloud to make it clear. Are you trying to say that the Black Panthers are different from other groups?
Tony is listening quietly and taking notes. Adrienne continues,I'd like you to clarify why you say, “Blacks today should be grateful.” You didn't really explain what people felt back then, so it's confusing to suddenly talk about today. It would have helped to explain what people in the black community felt toward the Black Panthers. And you seemed to assume that I knew about Huey Newton, Malcolm X, and Bobby Seale. Some brief biographical information would be helpful. This is my final question—a challenging one. What was your main idea? I couldn't really tell.
Adrienne looks up expectantly, and Tony responds,You're right that I need to do a lot more on this draft. Actually, my thesis isn't about whether the Panthers were different from other groups, but about how violent and nonviolent protests have affected today's black society. In my next revision, I will explain about how we live in the shadows of the legacies of yesterday and include more historical background.
Next, Tony gives feedback on Adrienne's paper on school desegregation and busing in Boston in the 1970s. Although he could be smarting from her critique of his draft, he shares thoughtful comments, including a push for more specifics:You explain the pros and cons [of busing] very well, but I would have liked more information about how various families from different racial and ethnic groups reacted to busing. You hint at this, but you are not specific. And you refer to the educational imbalance in the schools before busing, but you need to give some specific examples and . . . explain how this affects society today. But . . . you made me really think about how Boston would have been different without busing for all of us.
The discussion moves to Veronica's critique of Adrienne's paper. Veronica shares general comments about the strengths and weaknesses of Adrienne's arguments, asks clarifying questions, and notes how Adrienne's conclusion made her think in a more nuanced way about what her own paper—also on busing in Boston—might lack:I've grown up hearing from my parents about how bad busing was. . . . You raised a lot of the positive points about busing that I'd never even thought about. I guess I'd always assumed it was as bad for black people as for white people like me . . . I'm thinking I need to do some additional research for my own paper.
Each of the students has one more opportunity to ask an author in the group questions about that author's draft and to respond to a critique of his or her own draft.

What MCAS Would Measure

In this assignment, students learn from one another and take risks. For example, as a white teenager in a school with a minority of white students, Veronica might have feared that her perspective on a controversial issue like busing would not be accepted. However, the assignment guides students to critique one another's positions for evidence and clarity—not in terms of whether their views agree. This pushes students toward the overarching goal of presenting a persuasive argument with clarity and evidence.
This complex process of students examining their own—and one another's—thinking about social issues is a far cry from the narrow learning of discrete facts that poses as education reform in Massachusetts today. The state rolled out its history test this fall, and freshmen at Boston Arts Academy will need to pass this test at the end of the 2008–09 school year. Far from reflecting the goals of excellent learning, it requires random recognition of historical facts. Here's a sample question:Which of the following issues was central to the Nullification Crisis of 1832–1833? (A) due process (B) laissez faire (C) states' rights (D) women's rights. (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, 2007).
This test reflects what I call a “laundry list approach to learning a myriad of isolated facts” (Nathan, 2000). If Massachusetts persists in this approach, the humanities curriculum we have developed and taught for 10 years at Boston Arts Academy—which combines study in history, English, social studies, civics, and economics (Nathan, 2004) and which benefits students like Adrienne, Tony, and Veronica—may be sacrificed.

Reexamining Our Goals

Other schools' losses are even more dramatic. Fifteen years into Ed Reform, a typical public high school in Boston offers virtually no visual arts, music, dance, or theater. The sole goal is to pass the MCAS.
Passing the MCAS is not a terrible goal. We all want our students to possess basic literacy and numeracy skills. But we must understand the price we pay as a society when schools become little more than places for students to pass a test. A steady diet of test prep will not help our graduates achieve our higher goals, such as interacting with and influencing our complex world. Instead, we will foster another generation of disengaged, poorly educated students.
The state has a right to ascertain that our graduates have basic mathematical and reading competencies and can write a cogent and convincing essay. But standardized testing of students' competencies should stop there.

What I Propose

I don't want Boston Arts Academy to be forced to eliminate our humanities curriculum as we were forced to scotch our integrated science curriculum. And I don't want other schools in the state to be hampered in promoting excellence.
  • Pose and solve problems not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively and creatively. Reform must embrace the concept that artistic expression, imagination, and creativity are skills our students should practice if they are to solve problems better than society has done in the past.
  • Understand and act effectively within political and economic realities. For example, students should understand the stock market, the legislative process, and the workings (or nonworkings) of the electoral system.
  • Know how to play a musical instrument, and savor experiences with live theater and dance, both on stage and in the audience.
  • Be competent in different artistic media and understand the value of museums.
  • Interact within different languages and cultures—and realize that the global economy and national security depend on people's ability to move through the world respectfully and conscientiously.
An overarching goal of reform should be to create graduates who demonstrate “community with social responsibility” (one of our school's four main values). Students need positive experiences tackling community problems. If we hope for young people to care about improving the world, we must give them the opportunity to try out this kind of work in school.
  • Cancel the upcoming standardized history test as a requirement. The state should allow schools, in conjunction with districts, to develop and present alternative methods for assessing competencies in history and other areas, including science, the arts, foreign language, and physical education.
  • Require four years of the arts for all public high school students.
  • Reopen dialogue between educators and parents throughout Massachusetts to suggest different ways to assess student learning.
If we do not promote such reform in Massachusetts, the kind of deep learning that humanities students experience at Boston Arts Academy will be replaced with prep for another standardized test. To teach our students to think, evaluate, write, revise, articulate a position with evidence, and create new ways of approaching old problems requires true reform—not a test. We need renewed conversation about the kind of pedagogy needed to teach such skills, particularly in urban centers.
Excellence in schools costs money and time. It requires training teachers to do the complex work that committed educators do. If we believe our students are the future, we must redirect resources to ensuring that future.

Boston Youth Transition Task Force. (2006).Too big to be seen: The invisible dropout crisis in Boston and America. Boston: Private Industry Council. Available:www.bostonpic.org/youth/Too_Big_To_Be_Seen.pdf

Capodilupo, C., & Wheelock, A. (2000).MCAS: Making the Massachusetts dropout crisis worse. Cambridge, MA: FairTest. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED450191). Available:http://eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/16/d9/77.pdf

Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. (2007). Question 20: Multiple choice. 2007 U.S. History: High School. Malden: Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Available:www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/2007/release/default.html

Nathan, L. (2000). Habits of mind. In D. Meier (Ed.), Will standards save public education?(pp. 50–56). Boston: Beacon Press.

Nathan, L. (2002a). The human face of the high-stakes testing story. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 599–600. Available:www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0204nat.htm.

Nathan, L. (2002b). Through the lens of art.Educational Leadership, 60(2), 22–25.

Nathan, L. (2004). A day in the life of a school leader. Educational Leadership, 61(7), 82–84.

 Linda F. Nathan is executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, which is a consulting partner with Conservatory Lab Charter School, and cofounder of the Perrone-Sizer Institute for Creative Leaders. She was the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, Boston's only public high school for the visual and performing arts. Nathan is the author of The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test (Beacon Press, 2009) and When Grit Isn't Enough (Beacon Press, 2017).

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