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The Story of the MCAS and Standardized Learning

L.Kelly-Bowditch's picture

The Story of the MCAS and Standardized Learning

Children are often given less credit than they deserve. I myself am guilty of this offense, as I believe we all are. Perhaps we forget what it was like to be young and curious, reading whatever we could get our hands on, picking up on adult conversations those involved were sure went over our heads, maybe even the occasional, giggly eavesdropping sessions we knew were so wrong (but so fun.) To this day, I underestimate the mental abilities of my younger sister. An avid reader and learner, she thirsts for knowledge beyond the scope of her fifth grade classroom. This is especially true because of the MCAS.

The MCAS test is a Massachusetts standardized test that began, when I was in fourth grade, as a way of gauging the success of public schools: three tests taken in fourth, seventh, and tenth grade. Over the years, this system grew and changed until it reached its most recent form which tests students in the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth grades. By 2014, all students will be required to achieve a “proficient” score (on a scale of “fail”, “needs improvement”, “proficient”, and “advanced”) to graduate. This, as one might expect, leads to a huge problem with teaching to the test as schools struggle to pass all of their students.

In a 2000 Boston Globe article, Tests on Their Minds, several different viewpoints are presented; teachers who feel stifled by the MCAS requirements, but teach only mandated curriculum and skills, those who rebel and continue teaching what they feel is most useful to their students, and even those who embrace the strict guidelines and add hours of MCAS drills to each school day. One of the major controversies brought up is the debate between those who feel that teaching to the test will produce the best scores on the test, and that it would be “senseless not to,” and those who argue that so much is lost by taking this approach it puts students at a disadvantage in the real world (Vigue).

Besides teachers, parents and students find these restrictions frustrating. My own mother has witnessed the progression of these tests from my youth to my sister’s very different experience with them. “They’ve dumbed down the curriculum. They’ve eliminated most of the interesting projects; teachers have little leeway nowadays. By testing the daylights out of  kids, they’ve eliminated creativity. It’s very cut and dried.” She went on to tell me how from January to May they drill test skills every day, going over and over the same material until my sister hates going to school.

Clearly this is a system that is not working in the best interest of students. The stories I was taught have been replaced by a cookie cutter example of education that allows no room for experimentation, creativity, questioning or variation. Facts are presented to be rewritten in bubble form. “Critical thinking” is taught as a step by step process. I wonder how critically students can be thinking when all of their conclusions are the same.

The example of the town of Harvard is given to illustrate a system where the MCAS is studiously ignored. School administrators give teachers complete control over what and how they teach, and, as one might expect, Harvard students score highest out of the entire state (Vigue). However, it is ironic that the superintendent prohibits teaching to the test because “we have other achievements to address, like advanced placement courses, SATs . . .(Vigue) " It seems to me that AP courses and SATs are simply other versions of standardization, so while not restricting curriculum to that on the MCAS is great, it is still limited by the school’s other goals.

Returning to my initial statement that children are underestimated, I would like to consider how by catering teaching to underachievers, as the MCAS and other tests designate children who don’t prove they can navigate such a test, limits the possibility of extended learning. Those who are able to perform at higher levels are ignored in favor of those who can’t quite keep up. When a school’s success if measured by how many people pass, no one helps those who want to excel. Boring students to death doesn’t help the matter either, for it is those students who seek knowledge on their own that push the limits.

Having gone through this systematic standardization of education myself, both the MCAS and the SAT, I can attest to its many undesirable qualities. Countless practice tests, single methods of solving math problems, one story of how and why historic events occurred, and many other things resulted from the mandated tests. By limiting what and how we learned, schools deprived us not only of the obvious missed stories, but of the resulting quests beyond what we were given in school. When class is so boring students go home to escape, no independent searching out of new stories is undertaken. If your interest isn’t peaked by a story, why keep looking?

It seems to me that our class discussion relating to whether states require us to learn specific stories to be useful in society might be a related question to this issue of standardization. It may also be a partial answer to why "no one ever told us". If science isn't fact, there can't really be a true or false answer about it on a test.

Limiting the versions of stories taught ends the learning process. There’s no need to go beyond and seek more answers because you’ve already been taught which is right. It was mentioned in class that by telling stories we instigate the search for new ones. This process is clearly stopped short by the standards set by standardized testing. At the same time, isn’t that what these tests were conceived to do? Set certain standards everyone must meet? When did it become ok to be content with meeting the minimum?

My sister Rebecca tells me that the MCAS ruins school for everyone. The practice tests they take are straight out of old tests and take up time she’d prefer to spend reading or doing science experiments. She notes that “often what we learn ends up on that years MCAS.” Even the students are aware that they’re learning to pass a test, not to learn.  “No one likes them, everyone hates school,” she says of her classmates’ reactions to the test. “We call it (MCAS) the Massachusetts Child Abuse System.”

Works Cited

Vigue, Doreen. Tests on Their Minds. The Boston Globe. April 9, 2000. <> Feb. 11, 2009.


Rebecca (the sister mentioned)'s picture

In response...

I finally did get around to reading your article about why MCAS isn't useful, Laura! Great job! :) And, Ms. Dalke, one reason why I believe testing has become so important is because the schools get judged on how well students do on the MCAS. Many of my teachers have said that they wish that they didn't have to do it, but it's required by law. Therefore, the teachers are forced to make us do all those practice tests! I personally don't think that it's fair to punish students just to see if the school should be punished! That's like burning a house with people inside it to see if it's flamable or not! (Alright, not the best simile, but you get what I mean)

And also, I hope that you don't doubt my mental abilities anymore!

Anne Dalke's picture

Testing, testing....

You’ve provided a sobering account, here, of the consequences of “teaching to the test,” and made a strong argument that “limiting the versions of stories taught ends the learning process”: “there’s no need to go seek more because you’ve already been taught what is right.”

So what is a scientist and a teacher to do? What interventions are possible, in such a system? You tell one counterstory, that of the town of Harvard, but I’m not quite sure I understand the implications of that difference. Why might we “expect” (as you say we should) that students who are not taught to the test will score higher than those who do? What’s the logic of that dynamic?

Can you be a scientist, and play the skeptic to your own story? Why has testing become so important in public schooling today? What functions does it serve? Are any of them positive?