Soundings: Sorely tested

The MCAS tests were born out of the Commonwealth’s Education Reform Act of 1993, years before the No Child Left Behind Act came along and co-opted them as part of our national high-stakes testing system. The same 1993 legislation spawned the Commission on Time and Learning, which set minimum hours of instruction for children in Massachusetts schools.

One reason we have block scheduling at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School is that by arranging the academic day into four long blocks, with just three five-minute passing periods between them, the high school was able to meet the standard without extending its year.

According to the rules laid out on Beacon Hill, things like hallway time, recess, and lunch hour don’t count as learning. Absurdly enough, however, time spent penciling answers on standardized tests does count. So do all the hours our teachers spend drilling kids on test-taking strategies and administering practice tests in preparation for the MCAS exams.

And with so many tests, you can bet there’s a lot of prepping involved. Here’s a quick walk through the MCAS year in the Island public schools:

MEPA, the state’s English proficiency tests, are administered to grades 1-12 in the last week of October. In November, high school students take six hours of tests in English and mathematics. Two hours of high school biology tests follow in February, and March brings a retesting round of high school English and math tests.

The spring administration of MEPA is held in February and March — this time, our kindergartners are tested, too. Late March brings the big round of English reading and composition tests for grades 3-8 and 10, and April brings a similar marathon of testing in math and science. Finally in early June, as their academic year ends, our high schoolers will take their MCAS tests in science, technology, and engineering.

Folks, the educational cart is now officially leading the horse. It was possible, in the early years of MCAS, for the advocates of all these tests to argue that they’re merely diagnostic and that if we teach our children well, scores will improve as a happy side-effect. But now defenders of the testing regime have been reduced to suggesting that if we teach to the test (because there’s no denying that we do), the side-effect is a better education for our kids.

Just how brutally the academic year has been distorted by all this testing, and by all the test-prep classes associated with it, is hard to overstate. One of the casualties is the Tisbury School’s fourth grade theatre project, a 17-year collaboration with the Vineyard Playhouse. Another is a project I created in 2005 at the Edgartown School, where for three years I helped students in grades 5 to 8 produce their own school newspaper. When I called the new principal, John Stevens, in the fall of 2008, to talk about another journalism project, we had a brief conversation which I remember playing out something like this:

John: “We’re going in a different direction this year, with a focus on nonfiction writing.”

Me: “But the journalism project is all about nonfiction writing!”

John: “I know, but this year we’re going to concentrate on the form of writing that’s on the state tests.”

Me, incredulously: “You mean the five-paragraph essay? One graph introduction, three supporting graphs and a conclusion? I’ve been making my living as a writer for more than 30 years, and I’ve never, ever been asked to write one of those.”

John: “Nis, this is the hand we’ve been dealt, and we’ve got to play it.”

This winter, I explored plans for a series of televised forums on issues in public education at the Edgartown Public Library, but found that our Island teachers are reluctant to discuss their concerns on-camera. Teachers fear reprisals from their principals, who keep them on a short leash in pursuit of the punitive and impossible goals set by the No Child Left Behind Act. (Every student performing at grade level by 2014 – hello, can you say Lake Wobegon?) Principals may privately agree that NCLB is a failed federal program, but they must answer to their superintendents, who answer to the state Department of Education, which dances to the tune of the federal government.

What we’ve witnessed in the past 20 years is the most dramatic shift of authority away from the classroom teacher to distant bureaucrats and legislators ever seen in the history of American public education. I’m convinced that when we look back on this era of “test them until they scream for mercy,” we’ll recognize it as a dark age in public education.

In our hearts, we know that fostering a love of learning is more important than stuffing young heads with facts that, after the test, are quickly forgotten. We know that children learn more when they have some say in what they’re studying than when the subject matter is forced upon them. (The recent high school science fair was a bracingly vivid example of this.) We know that even though the Boston papers rush to rank all the schools in Massachusetts on the week when MCAS scores come out, the quality of education is not reducible to a number.

And yet our legislators and educational leaders persist in arguing that more testing equals better education. My favorite answer to that argument comes from one of the Edgartown School student newspapers. When one of my young reporters asked science teacher David Faber for his take on our national preoccupation with testing, he replied: “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it more often.”