By Doug Page
This year’s recently released MCAS results show, with few exceptions, that children from high-income communities outperformed their less-advantaged peers, and a demographic achievement gap continues to persist.
Demographically, Asian and white students performed best, according to information provided by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which administers the test and oversees the Commonwealth’s K-12 public schools. African Americans, Latinos, students considered “economically disadvantaged,” and those with disabilities scored lower, according to DESE’s own demographic breakdowns. This year’s recently released MCAS results show, with few exceptions, that children from high-income communities outperformed their less-advantaged peers, and a demographic achievement gap continues to persist.
Historically, MCAS tests have shown a demographic achievement gap, and although this year was the debut of a new version of the annual exam, the results were similar demographically, according to the department.
* Thirty percent of African-American students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English, 26% in math.
* Twenty-nine percent of Latino students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English, 28% in math.
* Twenty-nine percent of low-income students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English, 27% in math.
* Asian students performed the best, with 74% meeting or exceeding expectations in math, 67% in English.
* Fifty-six percent of white students met or exceeded grade-level expectations in English, 55% in math.
“We have these persistent gaps in achievement, and yet we continue to take the same approach and use standardized tests,” noted Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston-based public education advocacy group. “We’re doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s Einstein’s Theory of Insanity.”
“The reality is that family dynamics and the educational background of parents, along with income and habits, are a huge part of why kids from upper-income homes do well [on standardized tests] and those from lower incomes don’t,” said Frederick Hess, an executive editor at Education Next, a journal published at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based think-tank. “Family and home are a big part of a child’s success on standardized tests, but we [as a country] have chosen not to think or talk about it.”
Much of this is confirmed by this year’s results, which show students from Dover-Sherborn, Concord, Hopkinton, Southborough, and Carlisle — school districts with annual household incomes near or above $200,000 — performing best, while children from Holyoke, Webster, Southbridge, Orange, and Brockton, school districts with annual household incomes averaging less than $60,000, scoring worst.
“[The new MCAS test] doesn’t change anything,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “If you’re going to have a bell curve, the kids who are the least advantaged are going to continue to do worse overall. Individual kids will perform better, but it’s not going to change anything in terms of [which school districts are] going to be on the bottom of the barrel. [The test is] always going to give the impression that the least-resourced districts look worse. That’s not going to change.”
“Education is not going to be improved by any state assessment,” added Todd Gazda, Ludlow Public Schools superintendent. “If we transform our focus on how we’re teaching and how we’re expecting our students to learn, then we’ll see greater success. We’re preparing our students for the workforce, to become productive members of our society. Our fixation on tests and test scores is getting in the way.”
“Critical thinking skills are best exhibited in assessments developed by teachers who know their students and who can develop collaborative-based projects for their students,” said Brad Jackson, Holliston Public Schools superintendent. “I don’t know how you can expect to test for creative problem-solving in a one-size-fits-all performance assessment that has to be written in such a way that 800,000 of them can be corrected in three weeks. We need to start thinking of competency, not performance-based assessments, because you can’t assess those soft skills.”
Inside the new test
Just over half of the students tested failed to meet or exceed grade-level knowledge in English and math, with the majority rated as “Partially Meeting Expectations” or “Not Meeting Expectations,” new descriptions used to define student performance.
Nicknamed “MCAS 2.0,” this new version is a hybrid exam consisting of Common Core-oriented questions and those unique to the Bay State. It was administered for the first time this past spring to approximately 425,000 public school children in grades 3-8, about 40% of the state’s K-12 public school student body.
For the first time, a significant majority of students — about 60% — took the test online.
“One of the things that impacted scores this year was taking it on a computer,” Ludlow Public Schools Superintendent Gazda said. “If you’re doing the test on a computer, you’ve got the content to figure out, plus the platform is new.”
Regardless, this year’s results may come as a shock to many parents. Two years ago, 80% of all 8th graders taking the previous version of the test scored “Proficient” or higher, and nearly 70% of all 5th graders scored the same on the math portion.
“The problem with [standardized] tests is that we tend to measure them like the 100-yard dash in the Olympics,” Hess noted. “But they’re more like Olympic figure skating. There’s all this stuff behind the scenes that affects the scores: Are the questions harder? How many need to be answered correctly? Where are the cut [passing] scores set? Scores can be set higher or lower. So the scores [kids receive] can be higher or lower, but that doesn’t mean schools are better or worse.”
DESE Acting Commissioner Jeff Wulfson warned parents not to compare this year’s MCAS results with those of previous years. In a letter posted on the department’s website, he explained that the test “establishes high expectations to better reflect whether students are on track for the next grade level, and ultimately for college and career.”
“2017 is the baseline year — the first year of a new assessment — and we expect that, over time, more students will score Meeting Expectations or above,” Wulfson wrote. He noted that when the MCAS debuted in 1998, relatively few students scored well.
“When [DESE] looked at the test and the questions and raised the bar, they wanted to have this be a meaningful test built on career and college readiness,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “They want fewer kids, when they graduate from high school, needing a tutorial or some kind of [academic] intervention when they go to college. Among those [rated] ‘Proficient’ on the old MCAS, there were quite a few kids who needed a remedial program [in college]. By setting an even-higher bar, they’re saying that performance will be pushed to improve.”
DESE said about 30% of the state’s high-school graduates attending a Massachusetts state-run university or college have, over the years, required remedial help in English and math.
“I have yet to see the data that supports that assertion,” Holliston Public Schools Superintendent Jackson noted. “We use a very broad stroke to define problems that may or may not be statewide. Show me the data about Holliston kids.”
Sandra Stotsky, a former senior associate commissioner at DESE who helped create some of the first versions of the original MCAS, worries students and teachers won’t be served well by the new version.
“Teachers will be operating blind because DESE won’t release the test questions,” she said. “How is anyone to know which questions were answered correctly and which ones weren’t?”
In previous years, she added, DESE shared with teachers the best answers they received from what’s called an “open-response” question, which requires students to write a short essay or paragraph to answer the question.
“Built into this approach [of the MCAS test] is an assumed distrust of local education officials,” Jackson said. “Somewhere in the 1980s and 1990s, local control of education became synonymous with distrust of local education officials, and state and federal takeover of public schools.”
While Jackson says his views are not widely held, he noted: “There’s frustration among educators at all levels in Massachusetts. It’s more extensive than people think.”
While state and federal laws require Massachusetts to administer the MCAS, Hess warns there’s always the possibility for a revolt against the test.
“If you set high targets [for passing the test] and then they don’t get met, there’s always the potential for a huge backlash,” he said. “It happens when people feel like they’re being set up to fail — all because there are impossible targets to hit and ridiculous expectations.”
Doug Page is a Medfield father of two and award-winning writer whose newspaper career started in high school. He’s written stories, sold ads, and delivered newspapers during the morning’s wee hours. He’s covered stories as shocking as the crash of Delta flight 191 in Dallas many years ago to the recent controversy involving Common Core and standardized testing in Massachusetts.