By Theodore Willson
Executive Director, National Institute for Student-Centered Education
At long last, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is taking a much needed step back to examine whether the state’s appetite for standardized testing is proving detrimental to teachers and students.
Matthew Malone, the state’s education commissioner, thinks it’s time to review how testing is being handled in school districts around the state. He was quoted as saying in a recent Boston Globe article, “It’s assessment gone wild. Everywhere we go to talk to teachers, administrators, and parents, the consensus is we test too much. I think we need to find a better balance.”
Malone echoed what Massachusetts Board of Education Chairwoman, Margaret McKenna, questioned a few weeks ago. After learning that some schools are testing students 20 to 25 days per year, including practice and pretests, she said, “We’ve got to figure out a way to make sure people are not teaching to the test.”
These sentiments are long overdue in the Commonwealth, and indeed across the country, where testing scores seem to be trumping the dedication of the vast majority of educators whose mission is to offer their students a true education that will serve them well into the future.
It is also a great relief that DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has reversed his position on tying teachers’ licensure to, among other things, their students’ test scores.
In what seemed like a startling set of proposals, DESE released Design Principles and Policy Options which called for a new and improved teacher licensing system that could hold educators’ licenses hostage to their students’ standardized test scores. But after receiving overwhelming push-back, including 45,000 emails from educators across the Commonwealth, Chester acquiesced. “We got very clear feedback, and quite frankly I agree with the feedback — we should keep local evaluations separate from licensure,” he said.
The National Institute for Student-Centered Education (NISCE) has just concluded its INSPIRE 2014 conference, attended by 300 educators from across the country and around the world. At that conference, it was clear that there is increasing pressure being felt by educators who are looking for ways to measure their students’ growth without sacrificing the curiosity and interests of their students.
NISCE encourages Commissioners Malone and Chester, along with Chairwoman McKenna, to propose initiatives that aim to reverse the damage done by the extreme focus on testing — the focus that puts pressure on teachers and schools to raise test scores at all costs. Unintended results have ranged from relatively benign, but educationally unsound, practices like “teach-to-the-test,” to seriously fraudulent activity, such as manufacturing false results, as seen in the Atlanta school scandal uncovered in 2009.
Although there is no question that core academic knowledge and skill mastery are important platforms for assessment and can be of great use in creating a collective vision of what a good education should include, they do not speak to the individuality of learners or to the individual skill and creativity of teachers. Instead they mandate progress and prescribe punitive action when adequate progress is not achieved.
NISCE also encourages the state’s education leadership to engage in discussions about alternative, student-centered assessments that take into account each child’s individual circumstances, each teacher’s classroom dynamic, and each school district’s resources.