Area lawmakers speak out against MCAS proposal

  • BLAIS

  • COMERFORD

  • WHIPPS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/23/2022 7:25:51 PM
Modified: 6/23/2022 7:23:28 PM

After 15 years of experience in early and secondary education, during which he was unable to speak out on educational policies he saw as unjust, one Greenfield resident is now speaking out publicly on topics he wasn’t able to criticize before.

“The research is pretty clear that what seems to determine most how people do on MCAS is related to income of families, income of districts,” said Doug Selwyn, a retired teacher who, since leaving the profession, has been outspoken against the emphasis the state places on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) as a marker for success. “We have poorer districts trying to make do with fewer resources, so the kids who always get screwed by these tests would get more screwed.”

Selwyn was referring to a pending proposal by the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that would require students in the graduating classes of 2026 through 2029 to achieve higher MCAS scores on the tests required for graduation in mathematics, English language arts and science.

“This emphasis on testing reduces local control over what happens in schools,” Selwyn added. “Those of us in rural communities who know our kids, know our communities, end up being the victims of policies by people who don’t know us at all.”

Selwyn’s concerns have been represented in a recent letter to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that is signed by dozens of legislators — including several from western Massachusetts — who are voicing their opposition to the proposal.

“The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education says that it wants to help the students that have disproportionately struggled during COVID,” said Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who was one of the legislators to initiate the letter. “But by choosing to raise the passing score for MCAS, it will actually hurt, disproportionately, the very students they purport to help. My question is: why put the burden of having to build back from the COVID pandemic on the shoulders of the students?”

Other area legislators who signed the letter include Reps. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, Paul Mark, D-Peru, and Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, as well as Sens. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and Anne Gobi, D-Spencer.

Although this proposal and the legislators’ letter comes on the heels of COVID-19, Comerford said she rejects “outright” the notion of a high stakes test.

“I don’t know a teacher who is against assessment and evaluation,” she said. “I am certainly not against evaluation, but when we tie one test to a diploma, then we give this one test the ability to decide whether or not a student graduates with a diploma, and thus has access to everything that diploma means, including higher education. We basically allow one test to have the power to foreclose or open a student’s future.”

In particular, she expressed concern for students of low income, students of color and English language learners who are disproportionately represented in the thousands of students who leave high school each year without a diploma, as a result of failing one of the tests.

As a teacher, Selwyn said he witnessed exactly the impact standardized testing had on the students in his classrooms who were learning English as their second or third language.

“I watched them do excellent work all year long and then collapse when they had to take tests in their second or third language,” Selwyn said.

Whipps echoed the concerns voiced by Selwyn and Comerford.

“When we talk about barriers and gaps in equality for kids from districts that have a lot of people or a high percentage of students with disabilities or English language learners, it just seems to me that we should be removing barriers, rather than lifting them up higher for kids to jump up over,” Whipps explained. “I want to see our students achieve, and that shouldn’t be determined by a standardized test.”

Whipps said rather than depend solely on standardized testing to measure progress, information on retention rates should be considered, as should where students end up after they graduate.

“Where these kids go when they leave, that’s a measure of success,” she said.

Coming off the pandemic, Whipps said, the anxiety and stress of teachers and students can’t be ignored.

“Why are we adding another level of anxiety?” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Selwyn, who has spoken on the subject of standardized testing at several School Committee meetings this year and also addressed an open letter to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, emphasized that higher test scores don’t necessarily mean someone is better educated.

“I’m really pleased the Legislature is finally saying ‘No, this is wrong,” he said. “To put even more pressure to have a higher test score, it’s just going to cause more and more kids to fail.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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