My Turn: High stakes testing on students are taking joy out of learning

  • High-stakes tests are taking the joy out of learning and the creativity out of teaching. Metro creative Commons

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

If you read the Recorder on a daily basis, as I do, you have been inundated with stories about how the funding of our schools in Franklin County has caused major cutbacks in teachers, programs, variety of courses, after-school programs, and support services for students. Meanwhile, the cost of these services keeps rising and we are asked to pay higher town real estate taxes to give students less than they had last year. How did we get to this place?

Over the last five years, Congress has cut federal funding for K-12 education by nearly 20 percent, about five times more than overall spending cuts, according to a new report. We’re still paying the same federal taxes, but less of it is coming back to our schools. The suggested Trump-DeVos budget would make even more devastating cuts. Mind you, more money alone is not a panacea, but money, when adequate for the task and used well, is clearly necessary and linked to higher achievement. A recent 15-year study demonstrated that just a 10 percent increase in school funding resulted in a substantially higher percentage of students graduating high school, as well as higher earnings as adults and staying off public assistance, especially for children who have barriers to learning and are underachieving.

Therefore, if less of our money is coming from our federal taxes for schools, then it needs to be supplemented by increased funding for schools from the money we pay in state taxes. If not, then money will come directly out of our bank accounts when our real estate taxes are increased to pay for rising school expenses. This is especially exacerbated here in Franklin County where school age populations are shrinking, but it still costs the same to pay for the buildings upkeep and the teacher to teach the one class. The state simply pays a district by counting the number of students, whether the building has 250 students or 180 students. You still need a first grade teacher whether there are 28 or 12 students in the class, but the district is getting less than half the state money for that teacher’s salary. Likewise, the bus rides are longer in rural areas and the buses are not as full here in Franklin County. In Franklin County we really do care about educating our children because we pay an inordinate percentage of our school budgets from local real estate taxes, while richer school districts in the eastern part of the state get those funds from taxing industry that exists there.

The worst part of state funding is what has changed about how the state allocates it. An overly large part of the funding pays for high stakes testing — the MCAS exams. If you have children or grandchildren in school, ask them about how many days of these exams they take each term and how many days are spent prepping for them. This is in addition to all their regular quizzes and tests. In Massachusetts, mandated high stakes testing occurs on 28 of 180 school days at public high schools, not counting the prep days. That is over 5 weeks of school days. Instead of paying millions of dollars to big corporations to produce these tests, we should be spending money on strategies that teachers and parents know improve our schools, such as smaller class sizes especially for younger grades and a rich and varied curriculum. What has happened to all of those elective classes that made you look forward to school when you were a student?

These unnecessary high-stakes tests are taking the joy out of learning and the creativity out of teaching. Students are experiencing incredible stress and getting the message that they are failures when education should be building on their strengths. “We haven’t been talking about joyful learning,” states a Massachusetts’ teacher addressing these issues. “We haven’t been talking about creativity and imagination. We haven’t been talking about the moral courage that we study in literature and in history. We haven’t been talking about what it means to be citizens of a democracy.”

Worse yet, many of the exams are developmentally inappropriate for our children. A local principal requested that I tell you about the inappropriateness of these tests in assessing students, especially young ones, and therefore the schools’ performance in educating them. Please look at the practice tests, particularly 3rd grade, and see how you as an adult might perform: bit.ly/2mRgvOl.

Unfortunately, it is likely to be worse next year unless you and I do something about this. Like the governor’s budget, the final House budget provides an additional $5.3 million for MCAS testing, representing a 20.9 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Luckily there are some state legislators who understand the dysfunction of this system and have introduced legislation to ameliorate the situation. S.308 — “An Act strengthening and investing in our educators, students and communities,” sponsored by Senator Mike Rush and 102 other legislators, serves two important purposes:

1. It updates the Foundation Budget (Chapter 70 Education Aid) formula based on the recommendations of the bi-partisan Foundation Budget Review Commission (2015). This overdue update of the formula, which dates to 1993, increases funding to help schools meet the needs of all students. Increases would take effect in 2019, after passage of the Fair Share Constitutional Amendment, which earmarks nearly $2 billion in new revenues for public education and transportation.

2. This bill requires Massachusetts to rethink its high-stakes testing regime. The bill establishes a three-year moratorium on the use of high-stakes testing for graduation and/or district accountability and removes the use of state standardized test scores in evaluating teachers. It also calls for a task force to examine standardized assessments and examine alternative methods for assessing student, teacher, school and district progress.

However, this bill will not be passed without us as parents, grandparents and interested citizens taking action. Our public schools are not failing, but rather how we are assessing our students and how we are allocating our state education funds is not allowing our superintendents, principals, teachers and students to do the effective job of which they are more than capable. We all need to support this legislation that will not increase state taxes for you or I, but will increase money coming to local public schools. We can succeed if we work together at a grassroots level and garner support by speaking out at town meetings, PTO or PTA meetings, school board meetings, by calling your representatives, or by joining us on our county-wide educational task force where you will have a safe place to voice your opinions and concerns and take action.

Paul Jablon is a Greenfield resident, a former public school teacher
and education professor. He is
currently chair of the Education Task Force of Franklin County
Continuing the Political Revolution (FCCPR) www.fccpr.us.