Cambridge defies high-stakes testing, faces wrath of Mass Department of Education
I'm originally from Lowell (you know, the mill girls, the Industrial Revolution, Jack Kerouac and HBO's "High on Crack Street"), but right now I'm feeling some Cambridge pride. Cambridge has become the second town to defy the Department of Ed's mandate that all students must pass the MCAS standardized test in order to receive a high school diploma.
Both my mom and my dad are public school teachers, and have watched in disgust and horror as this test has sapped creativity from the curriculum--teachers face harsh penalties if their students do not improve on the test, so of course they teach to the test (see excellent cartoon by Kevin Siers). The test itself takes up two weeks of precious teaching time. The test is English-only, so limited-English students fail in massive numbers. The students who do best are rich and white--in some schools in my hometown, more than 50 percent of students failed the test. Should these students just be thrown away in the name of standards and discipline? Is this what Bush calls leaving no child behind? (see my old cartoon on this subject, The Elimination Game) Cambridge says no, and will offer alternative ways of assessing students to make sure they are qualified to graduate, such as school performance and creative portfolios.
This is a small bit of positive news in what has otherwise been a horrible year for public education. Here in Massachusetts there have been massive budget cuts at all the state colleges and universities, forcing them to eliminate some academic departments along with student mental health services, services for students with disabilities, and more (it was at the point where some colleges were telling employees to bring in sweaters because they couldn't afford to turn the thermostat up high enough). And Philadelphia just sold 42 public schools to private companies (including the Edison Schools company, which studies have shown to be unsuccessful) to see if they can run them at a profit (part of this plan includes getting rid of most of the original teaching staff and imposing their own curriculum).
And of course, the MCAS is still a graduation requirement in almost every city and town in Massachusetts. If you want to know more about the evils of the MCAS, please visit www.massparents.org, an organization of parents against the MCAS. This comprehensive site contains news, petititions, legal information, student opinions (including info on students who have bravely boycotted the MCAS) and more, as well as last years statewide MCAS scores. Also, Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson has written some excellent pieces on the test's effects on black, Latino and low-income students. For example: "Too early for MCAS celebration" (on the ridiculousness of celebrating a slight decrease in MCAS failure rates); At Best, Silly, At Worst, Racist" (on the Eurocentrism of the MCAS); and "If You Think the MCAS History Test is Relevant, Try This Exam" (multiple-choice questions about African-American history you won't find on the MCAS).