This story was originally published in the Somerville Journal.
A group of Somerville parents is doing something a bit unprecedented: opting their children out of taking the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the statewide standards-based assessment program for students from grades 3 to 10.
Jennifer Bullard, Nancy Clougherty, Brian Duplisea, Gina Garro, Jamal Halawa, and Renee and David Scott will not have their fourth and sixth grade children at the East Somerville Community School participate in this year’s round of MCAS, starting the week of April 24.
Because of drastic changes in MCAS testing, installed in 1993, parents argue the amount of stress and anxiety placed on students is concerning.
If students don’t receive high scores on the test, schools are at risk of dropping to a lower ranking, placing pressure on both test-takers and distributors.
Informally named ”next-generation MCAS,” the new testing is distributed on computers, including more interactive components, like audio and video. Though many students are taking this form of MCAS this year, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) says the test will be fully distributed statewide in 2019.
“It’s harming their…mental health,” said Renee Scott. “Every aspect of [our daughter’s] education right now is ‘teaching to the test.’”
At parent-teacher conferences, she continued, teachers always say they are teaching a specific approach to math or writing because that’s how it will be presented on MCAS.
“If it’s a wonderful way to learn, that’s great, but there’s so much preparation and there’s so much fear,” she said. “It’s something I’ve really been struck with since we’ve started this process.”
The parents aren’t opting out of the test to hurt the schools, Renee Scott said — they’re doing it because the don’t want the schools to carry this burden and pressure of high scores.
They trust these teachers to teach their children, so they should be working on their own lesson plans instead of teaching to a test, she continued. Spending days at a time on practice tests and up to five days during the actual test is draining.
Though parents talked extensively with their children before opting out, said David Scott, the decision was ultimately theirs.
With no provision for opting out, many other parents are surprised to hear the group’s plans.
“We’re still trying to figure out what happens … because it isn’t really done,” said Garro. “The city doesn’t have an established policy.”
Schools, she said, have to administer the test but students are in no way legally bound to take it.
In March, DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester published a message regarding MCAS participation, with a somewhat confusing message.
While Chester said the MCAS testing is mandatory, specifically for 10th graders hoping to graduate from high school, he also said parents are able to opt their children out. In that case, children will be allowed to quietly sit in the testing classrooms.
“We don’t allow kids, students, to opt out of certain classes, or let them skip out on turning in homework. And the assessment program is a part of the statewide program,” he explained in an interview. “So if a parent refuses, they refuse. We don’t force a student to take the test. But there’s not a provision. It’s not an optional part of the school program.”
The test, he said, helps parents and educators gauge a student’s academic progress, which elementary school English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and Somerville parent Nancy Clougherty says is not true.
Even after tests are distributed, teachers aren’t allowed to see questions or answers, explained Clougherty, so the can’t pinpoint what a student struggled with. When she and her colleagues make the tests, they can see where students need extra help or what they understand.
“I don’t believe the MCAS, as a parent, gives me information about my child,” she argued. “And certainly not as a teacher.”
President of the Massachusetts Teachers’ Association (MTA) Barbara Madeloni has spoken against this standardized testing, personally backing a three-year moratorium in high-stakes testing across the state.
In an interview with WBUR, Madeloni said these tests do not accurately represent a student’s learning abilities, the quality of teaching, or what is happening in schools.
Last year some Somerville School Committee members advocated for the same moratorium, which Garro worked on.
“The stakes have just become incredibly high over MCAS, increasingly, increasingly high for districts, students, schools, and teachers,” she said.
Parents, teachers, administrators, and DESE need to come to an agreement and have a conversation about these ongoing concerns and issues, said Garro.
“This is something we’ve considered for a long time,” she continued. “Something’s got to give here … [MCAS] is usurping education, it truly is.”