Complete the following statement:
Spring is in the air, a time when educators' thoughts turn to:
a) summer vacation
b) a new season of The Voice
c) state-mandated MCAS testing, the results of which are considered the single most important indicator of what a child has learned and---by extension---how effective his or her teacher is.
Ignoring the fact that spring is most emphatically NOT in the air (at least here in northeast Massachusetts where this afternoon it was 16 degrees), the correct answer is: d) all of the above.
MCAS stands for Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. "Comprehensive" in grades 3 and 4 refers only to reading and math skills, as measured by a mostly multiple-choice bubble test.
It's "comprehensive" in the way my physical would be if a bunch of paper-pushers from the insurance company told my doctor that my entire check-up should consist of him looking in my ear.
Anyway. Next week we begin two weeks of MCAS testing in English Language Arts, which we kick off on Tuesday with the Grade 4 Long Composition. All across the state of Massachusetts, you'll be able to hear the hyperventilating and gnashing of teeth that signals the arrival of one of the most stressful days in a child's entire school career. And that's just the adults. The kids also cry and/or wet their pants. Many of them think that if they don't write a great composition, they'll fail school, their teachers and parents will be furious, and basically their lives will be ruined.
Almost everyone has to take the MCAS, even if they have significant special needs or speak little English.
Last year I was the test administrator for a boy on the autism spectrum who was so stressed about the test that he literally curled up in a ball under my table and cried for two hours because he didn't want to disappoint his mom and end up working at Burger King (yes, he said that).
I tried to comfort him by telling him that the test is a test of the school, not of him personally. It wasn't even a white lie: it WAS a test of the school. And of his teachers. The only ones who'd end up at Burger King if he did poorly were his teachers and maybe the principal.
It didn't help much. Though we finally managed to get something down on paper, he was definitely not at the top of his game. Yet that score will follow him forever, even though it's in no way a valid indicator of his ability.
It's grossly unfair---even inhumane---to put kids through this kind of trauma. Although this boy is an extreme example, he's not even close to being an isolated one. Kids without disabilities get just as stressed.
Why is so much weight put on this one test? It doesn't measure ANY of the things that I, as a school counselor, consider important indicators of healthy emotional development or future success: the ability to work in a group, to listen to others' point of view, to speak confidently, to read social situations and solve problems. It doesn't measure creativity or resilience, responsibility or humor, independence or perseverance. In other words, it fails as the single yardstick of a child's progress, so why is it used for that purpose?
I'll save my (very strong) opinions about the fairness of judging the effectiveness of schools and teachers by test scores that AT BEST provide a snapshot of how well that child was able to answer reading and math questions on one particular day of the year. And the fact that those test scores are used to compare schools, with little regard for the challenges faced by those educating many more English language learners, Special Education, and poor students.
Instead, all I'll say is this: there has GOT to be a better way. I really wish I ruled the world.