Test Prep

The topic of the day: adding and subtracting positive and negative integers—a basic concept in high-school math but one with which many of his students have been struggling. As he hands out the next day’s assignment, a chorus of complaints arises from students predictably unhappy about spending six weeks of their summer reporting to an un-air-conditioned classroom.

The question hangs in the air as Ciccarello, 32, moves to the blackboard, quickly drawing a graph. “You see this?”he asks, pointing to the x-axis. “This represents your income. And the y-axis represents your high school diploma. Down here, you have no high school diploma and no earnings. Up here, with a high school diploma, you have a good-paying job.”

“So why do you have to know this stuff?”he asks, as the bell ending the period rings through the hallways. “So you can pass the MCAS, so you can get your high school diploma.”

Ciccarello’s answer is deceptively simple for a school district as complex as Revere’s, a community whose teachers and parents aspire to send every child to college, but whose classrooms are filled with students who qualify for free lunches or whose parents speak limited English. And yet his answer is no simpler than the basic message behind the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a state-mandated exam that starting this school year all 10th graders in public schools must pass before they can graduate in 2003: Study hard, pass the test, earn a high school degree.

The rules and rewards are the same for the nearly 980,000 public school students in Massachusetts, regardless of the school they attend, the kind of community they live in, or the type of home they return to after a day in the classroom. It is a system that places equal expectations on students coming from unequal backgrounds. Which makes Revere’s acceptance—and even endorsement of the MCAS—all the more surprising.

In 1993, when the Massachusetts state legislature passed a bill calling for the creation of the MCAS, lawmakers and educators expected the loudest outcry to come from districts like Revere and other urban areas with historically underperforming schools. Those districts were expected to post the test’s highest failure rates and to produce the highest number of high school dropouts.

Some of these predictions have borne out. In 2000, 51 percent of Revere’s students failed the math portion of the test and 33 percent failed the English portion. Nonetheless, Revere accepted the MCAS early on and teachers like Ciccarello told students that the test was here to stay. The best thing they could do was prepare for it.

Since then, Revere’s attitude has shifted from grudging acceptance to a full endorsement of the MCAS and the standards-based movement. Rather than hide behind excuses built around the socioeconomic status of the students they serve, the district has embraced the test, altering school curriculum to match the content of the test and organizing test-prep workshops in an almost maniacal fashion—after-school, on the weekends, and during the summer. In a district tired of wearing the “underperforming”label, teachers and administrators have seized upon the test as their ticket to higher expectations, tougher standards, and better results.

Revere is not alone. In fact, as the MCAS becomes a fixture in the state’s educational agenda, a paradox has emerged: The schools most likely to do poorly on the MCAS have also been most likely to embrace it, while those districts whose scores are already quite high are fighting hardest to get rid of it. The latter schools—mostly white, primarily suburban, and always affluent—are leading the charge against the test, arguing that it diverts important resources and time from more advanced learning.

The white, affluent communities’ opposition to the MCAS has been as unexpected as the poor schools’ acceptance of it. The test, it seems, has reignited a century-old debate between proponents of “progressive”education, which champions intellectual freedom as the cornerstone of democratic society, and those who believe that curriculum should be standardized and students drilled on its content to ensure a basic level of skill.

Underlying the pedagogical debate, though, are deep class divisions that always seem to sabotage attempts to improve poor schools without hurting the rich ones. The MCAS has hit a nerve, in part, because its content is radically egalitarian. It evaluates all students on what they know and how well they think, not on how many Volvos populate their school parking lot or how many test-taking gimmicks they can acquire in pricey Kaplan prep classes, which are of little help on the open-ended MCAS questions.

Deeply offended at being lumped in with poor schools in taking the test—and secretly frightened that the test may expose some deficiencies in their schools and their students—affluent communities have mounted a concerted challenge to the MCAS. Their opposition threatens to stop the gains made in places like Revere dead in their tracks.

The Commonwealth isn’t the first in the nation to use a “high-stakes”test. Nearly 30 states currently use some version of it, as legislators and state-level bureaucrats across the country have come to view standards and accountability as a last-ditch attempt to save the public school system. But people in Washington are watching Massachusetts closely as its debate over standardized testing unfolds, in part because many see Massachusetts as a model reform effort, and its opponents are among the nation’s most sophisticated. Whereas the battle over standardized testing in other states has been conducted primarily at a grassroots level, led by concerned parents and teachers, the battle over the MCAS has attracted some of the biggest names in education reform today.

The quality of the reform effort and the presence an all-star cast of activists on both sides have made Massachusetts a warm-up ground for the battle that may soon take place in Washington. President George W. Bush has made annual school testing the centerpiece of his education reform effort, which would give the federal government a far greater role in setting standards for local school districts and require more standardized curriculum.

Massachusetts’ experience shows how much poor urban schools can benefit from this kind of reform, but it also demonstrates that the sanctity of local control of education is deeply rooted in American culture—at least in places where the parents are rich and educated enough to exercise it. If the Bay State’s travails are any indication, attempts by the federal government to take on that privileged culture in the interest of poor, minority kids will be an uphill battle.

It’s in places like Lincoln-Sudbury High School where the anti-MCAS movement has gathered most of its momentum. Never mind the fact that this tiny suburban district—with just under 1,200 students in its high school and one of the highest per-capita incomes in the state—was the 10th-highest scoring district after the 1999 MCAS scores were tallied. It’s the kind of school where students routinely overshoot the required number of science or history classes, where seniors worry not whether they will get into an Ivy League college but whether they will get into the right one.

Its strong academic performance is all the more reason for the anti-MCAS activism, says Jim Newton, a teacher in the Lincoln-Sudbury history department for the last 33 years. “Around here, there are people who know how to make the system work—they know how to make a racket,”Newton says. “Most of our kids will pass the damned MCAS test, so no one can accuse us of not wanting to take the test because our teachers can’t do their job.”

The petitions, the public forums, the protests, and the appeals to local legislators are no different at Lincoln-Sudbury High School than the anti-MCAS action being taken at other high-performing districts across the state. Rather than rest on their laurels, parents, teachers, and school administrators in districts like Concord, Brookline, and Lexington have banded together to form the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE).

For the most part, these districts have stubbornly refused to align their courses to the state-approved “frameworks”guidelines in English, math, history and science, approved by the board of education as blueprints for what every Bay State child should know by the time she finishes the 10th grade.

“Why do we need the test?”asks Gary Burton, the school superintendent in Wayland, Mass., a suburb neighboring Lincoln. “I would say that teaching kids how to take the MCAS is distracting us from our real educational mission.”

Matthew King, the school su-perintendent in Wellesley, Mass., agrees, saying that high-performing districts such as Wellsley shouldn’t have to sacrifice instructional time to prepare students for the 17-hour exam, let alone make time for them to take it. “If the urban schools like it, let them have it”King says. “But from our perspective, it’s too long and it’s not worth the time. We’re already teaching well beyond the MCAS level.

Massachusetts’ anti-MCAS coalition has mounted an offensive against the test and the state’s Republican-appointed board of education. This past November, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees adopted an anti-MCAS resolution at its annual statewide meeting. On any given weekend this past summer and fall, CARE activists could be found gathering signatures for their anti-MCAS petition in suburban Brookline’s Coolidge Corner.

An email discussion group started by CARE serves as a network for educators from all corners of the state. In 1999, students involved with SCAM (the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS) organized a boycott against the exam. In scattered sites across the state, more than 500 students simply walked out of the classroom when the test was distributed.

“This is a real issue to us,”says Will Greene, a high school junior from Great Barrington High School who founded SCAM last year. “Everyone thinks we’re a bunch of whiny, suburban kids, but most kids who are involved feel very strongly that it is unfair to reduce our high school education to one standardized test.

Yet for all the noise these activists have made about the MCAS, when pressed to show some evidence that suburban students are really suffering, they come up empty. There’s no evidence that the MCAS is forcing high-performing schools to dumb down their curriculum, no signs of AP classes drying up to make way for rote test prep. “We have done nothing to adapt our curriculum to the [state-recommended] frameworks”Newton concedes.

Ditto for Lexington High School. “I don’t think the MCAS has turned us on our heads. We’ve got a pretty full curriculum and our standards are great. We had to realign some of our classes, to make sure that students were covering the necessary material before they took the test, but we’re not going to eliminate any classes. We’re already in relatively good shape”says Philip Lanoue, Lexington’s principal.

In effect, the only tangible net cost of the MCAS to these districts has been about three days of class time. Given the minimal impact the test has had on their schools, it’s hard to see why people who are of-ten fanatical about the SATs are so apoplectic about

Their outrage might be understandable if the MCAS were one of those fill-in-the-dots multiple choice tests used elsewhere in the nation, which are justifiably seen as a way of beating down innovative teaching. But English and math portions of the MCAS—with their emphasis on short-answer and open-ended questions—are consistently praised as the best example of a standardized test that actually assesses critical thinking skills rather than rewards rote memorization. And they’re hard to cheat on, unlike tests in Louisiana and elsewhere. So if teachers are drilling kids for the test or doing other forms of the often maligned “test-prep,”they’re simply teaching the high school curriculum, not test-taking gimmicks.

Some of the reasons behind the suburban resistance to the MCAS, it seems, are ideological. It’s a bit of postmodernism mixed in with upper-class snobbery—the notion that our kids are special, and therefore don’t need the standardized tests given to the masses, combined with the idea that there is no such thing as one right answer or one definition of “well-educated.”The state-imposed MCAS is also colliding with the deeply held American belief in local control over public education.

This viewpoint has been best articulated by Deborah Meier, founder of New York’s Central Park East schools and Roxbury’s Mission Hill Pilot School, and one of the MCAS staunchest opponents. In a new book on the MCAS, called Will Standards Save Public Education? Meier argues that schools should be solely under local control, with standards established by the teachers and parents who know the children best. Anything less would create what Meier calls “competently acquiescent”students, uninspired and mind-numbingly uniform.

The debate over the MCAS goes beyond the larger policy issues, though. Many of the parents fighting the test are liberals who believe that public education is something noble. But like most parents, they’re not willing to sacrifice their kids for their political beliefs. As a compromise, they work hard and spend a lot of money to live in upscale neighborhoods where they believe the public schools rival private ones. Good schools, in fact, are often their raison d’tre for living in these pricey neighborhoods. These parents fear that the MCAS and the frameworks curriculum will compromise their local schools by shifting the focus away from college prep courses to those catering to the lowest common denominator.

But two years into Massachusetts’ experiment, there’s no sign that the MCAS is making a wreck of elite suburban schools. And that’s the point of having a good test. If done right, standardized testing can ensure a base level of knowledge while still allowing schools to pursue advanced courses and innovative teaching.

Consequently, suburban opposition to the test may stem from a very different motive: Fear of failing. Just as swanky prep schools like Groton and Exeter won’t make their academic data public, upper-class public school parents fear the MCAS will expose the underachievers in their ranks, whose success may have more to do with their families’ socioeconomic status than their intellectual prowess. And the schools themselves may prove somewhat suspect.

Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and an assistant secretary of education in the first Bush administration, says she has seen evidence of all these issues coming into play when suburban constituencies talk about standardized tests. “They live in suburban districts where they believe their schools are superb. They really believe that if tested, 100 percent of their children would do well,”she says. “Then they get the test scores back, and they respond by saying that they don’t want their children tested. From a financial perspective, it’s embarrassing. They can no longer justify living in the neighborhoods they live in.

In fact, the 1998 MCAS scores must have come as something of a shock to some of those very schools now leading the charge to get rid of it. In Lincoln-Sudbury, for instance, where houses run $900,000 to $1 million, fully one-quarter of the 10th graders taking the test flunked the math portion. Another 26 percent scored “needs improvement.”Twelve percent flunked the English portion and 29 percent needed improvement. The scores from last year aren’t much better. (School administrators say their low scores are partially a result of the number of high-achieving students who chose to boycott the 2000 test.)

Still, those aren’t the kind of results you’d expect from a school whose faculty claims the MCAS is distracting them from higher learning. In fact, the MCAS seems to be exposing some weaknesses in all the public schools, not just poor ones. But affluent parents would be loath to argue publicly that they don’t like the test because their kids are flunking it. Consequently, the activists have adopted a more legitimate and emotionally charged argument: That the MCAS hurts minority students.

At public forums, as proof of the MCA’s dangers, suburban parents point to schools like Boston’s Madison Vocational Tech, a vocational school serving a predominantly black population. In large numbers, they say, Madison’s students will surely fail the MCAS, and without a high school diploma, also fail to secure a job.

Yet Ravitch says that when raised by white, affluent parents, these arguments come off as rather disingenuous. “I was speaking before a group who billed themselves as being committed to social justice and the advancement of minority groups,”she recounts. “Then, during the Q&A session, one woman got up and started talking about her child and how she has to spend so much time preparing for the test. Suddenly, all the minority children faded away and it became all about her child.

Still, the minority-student issue is a serious one, and it is the strongest liberal argument against mandatory testing. As a result, the suburban activists have found a few allies on that front. In nearly every state that has attempted to implement serious standards-based school reform, minority groups have argued that black and Hispanic students will suffer disproportionately because of their historic underperformance on standardized tests.

Civil rights groups in Massachusetts point to recently released dropout rates for the state—which show slight increases in the number of Hispanic, black and Asian-American students dropping out between the 1997-1998 and 1998-1999 school years—as proof that the MCAS is pushing minority students to drop out of school when faced with the strong possibility of failing the test. Gary Orfield, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and co-director of its Civil Rights Project, predicts that three-fourths of black and Latino students may fail the MCAS this year if current trends continue.

“I think the test is set at the wrong level and the cut-point is very inappropriate,”Orfield explains. “It will produce severe demoralization and very negative images for exactly the schools that need the most help. The results should be used to trigger interventions, not flunk the kids in the worst schools.

The state has made some adjustments after considering these issues, however. Students will now have five chances to pass the test before finishing 12th grade, and the state is providing resources for summer school and additional support for struggling students. Experience in places like Texas has shown that these types of measures significantly reduce the numbers of students left without a diploma. Critics also overlook the economic benefits of a new system in which a high school diploma actually means its holders can read and write at an acceptable level–which it doesn’t now.

While suburban activists continue to raise the minority student issue in opposing the test, the majority of the state’s urban school districts have not joined them, and for some very good reasons. Thomas Payzant, superintendent of the Boston school district, where 85 percent of the students are minorities, says he does not doubt that his district will be among those hit hardest by the MCAS come 2003. But he also knows that protesting the MCAS on the basis of his district’s demographics sends his students a dreadful message.

“Young people in urban school districts have the most to lose with this test because many have not had the support along the way they need to be successful,”Payzant says. “But to back away from the test sets a double standard. It conveys the belief that urban kids somehow are incapable of meeting the standard.

Like so many other high-stakes tests being used across the country today, the MCAS is a creature of the political system. State legislators needed to provide poor and underperforming school districts with more funding, but business leaders and taxpayers were tired of throwing money at bad schools. Developing the MCAS was a way to attach expectations to the money, a tradeoff akin to welfare reform, where conservatives became more amenable to spending money on welfare recipients after a work requirement was put in place.

The MCAS was also the legislature’s response to a class-action lawsuit first filed in 1978 over inequities in the state’s financing of education. In 1993, the state supreme court ruled that Massachusetts had violated its constitution by under-financing public schools in poor communities. Less than a week later, the state legislature responded with an education reform bill that featured a new formula for calculating the amount of aid for which school districts qualified. After years of fighting, urban districts were about to enjoy a windfall.

Seven years later, when the Department of Revenue began auditing the 35 school districts that had received the greatest amount of aid, they found that the money had been put to good use. Most districts hired more teachers to reduce their class sizes. In Boston, the district developed remedial reading and math programs aimed at at-risk students in grades three, six, and nine to help them before they face the MCAS. Computers have been bought, libraries have been renovated, textbooks have been updated. And while the average per-pupil expenditures in these districts still barely meet the state average, urban school superintendents say the funding has been a blessing.

“It was part of the original trade legislators made with educators,”says Paul Reville, a member of the board of education when the 1993 act was adopted and co-founder of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “In exchange for accountability, we’ll spend more money on education reform.

This additional funding—more than anything else—has continued to fuel the suburban-urban divide over the MCAS. In the town of Harvard, 20 miles from the university and home of the highest average MCAS scores in the state, Mihran Keoseian, principal of Bromfield High School, says his already-affluent district has seen little by way of additional funding.

“I’m a little resentful, especially when you look at the dollar amount that is being fed into those substantially weaker districts,”he says. “Those are the systems they’re going after, those districts that gave out empty diplomas. But now we all have to march in lockstep because of a few, woefully underperforming districts.”

Don’t expect to hear apologies from school officials in Everett, a working-class city that has reaped the benefits of increased state aid. In a district where more than 40 percent of its 5,600 schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced lunches, “only”55 percent of its 10th graders failed the math portion of the 2000 exam. More than 60 percent passed the English part of the exam. As one of the 25 most disadvantaged communities in the state, Everett was expected to see a much higher failure rate on both sections of the test.

“We’ve done away with basic-level math courses. We’re pushing kids into algebra and geometry at an earlier age,”explains Everett’s associate superintendent, Richard Wallace. “Now by the time students graduate our high school, 100 percent will have completed an algebra sequence.”

With more than $13 million in funding now coming from the state, Everett has extended its school year, doubled its teaching force, reduced class size, and given its teachers, on average, a five percent raise every year over the last seven years. Thousands of dollars have gone toward staff development, and a brand-new high school is in the works.

“I’m sure the suburban communities feel that they have been cheated by education reform,”says Peter Dolan, Everett’s assistant superintendent. “But the urban communities, the Everetts of the Commonwealth, have a whole different set of problems to deal with than the Harvards of Massachusetts. And that was the intent of ed reform—to level the playing field.

The MCAS, and the reforms that have come with it, may be the best thing to happen to poor students in a generation in terms of improving the quality of their education. Without the test, the state is unlikely to find continued support for sending additional funding to poor school districts. Further, as economists Julian Betts and Robert Costrell argue, by ridding the state of the MCAS, these affluent activists are all but dooming urban districts to continue to award students meaningless diplomas.

They write in a paper soon to be published by the Brookings Institution: “This may seem to be a convenient arrangement for those schools that graduate mostly high-achievers, while waving through their lagging students with a wink and a nod. But it is no longer a credible option for those schools in disadvantaged districts whose graduates are known to often lack basic skills.”

Despite their professed concern for minority students, the MCAS opponents don’t seem to have factored these issues into to their strategy. With the 2001 tests just days away, they are bracing themselves for what they predict will be a busy and tumultuous year of boycotts and protests. They hope that by 2003, enough lawsuits will be filed against the state by parents whose children would not be receiving high school diplomas that the board of education will be forced to back down from using MCAS scores as a graduation requirement.

“The people who are involved in this are not naive—they don’t think this is a case of a simple misunderstanding,”says Karen Hartke, a project coordinator at the Cambridge-based FairTest, a testing reform advocacy organization. “Change is not going to happen through polite conversations with the board of education. This is going to be a political battle as much as it is going to be a pedagogical battle.”

But any backing away from the MCAS is unlikely, says James Peyser, chairman of the Massachusetts board of education. “We’re not flexible on this issue,”Peyser says. “I think it would be best if educators devoted more energy to teaching their students and less on working the political system.

It’s likely, though, that the debate over standardized testing will only intensify as it moves to Washington this spring. Massachusetts’ experience with the perilous waters of standards-based school reform holds several lessons for the new president, who plans to wade into the fray. It’s clear that any mandatory testing plan that would dumb-down good schools will doom Bush’s plan from the get-go, given the intensity of the opposition from upper-middle class voters. It’s also clear that mandatory testing can only be one part of education reform. Massachusetts has shown that testing only works when it is matched with significant resources designed to help the worst schools measure up.

And if Massachusetts is any indication, Bush may find that the fate of his education plan rests with his ability to call on liberals to find their better selves and to accept change that promises to vastly benefit their less advantaged counterparts, at little cost to those already succeeding. In the end, everyone’s schools might be better off.

Georgia N. Alexakis was managing editor of The Harvard Crimson in 1999. She now lives in Chicago and is the 2000 recipient of the Christopher Georges Fellowship, which is administered by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

Georgia N. Alexakis was managing editor of The Harvard Crimson in 1999. She now lives in Chicago and is the 2000 recipient of the Christopher Georges Fellowship, which is administered by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.