Parents, teachers, education advocates, and legislators from across Massachusetts called Thursday for a shift away from high-stakes standardized tests that they said waste class time, stifle creativity, and create anxiety even in very young children.
About 200 people — many wearing stickers with the rallying cry “Less testing. More learning.” — packed a hearing room at the State House and had to move to a larger auditorium for several hours of testimony before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education.
Many expressed fervent support for bills that would limit the use of test scores, allow families to opt out, and either eliminate or impose a moratorium on requiring that high school students pass a test to graduate, which they said disproportionately affects poor and minority teens.
“The overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing has resulted in the denial of diplomas [to] economically disadvantaged children who desperately need a high school diploma to access a pathway out of poverty,” testified Barbara Fields of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts.
Some argued, though, that the tests reveal existing disparities and empower educators to act to address them.
“Blaming the test for inequality is like blaming the doctor for the illness that she diagnoses,” said Lindsay Sobel, executive director of Teach Plus Massachusetts.
Other supporters of standardized tests, including state education officials and some teachers, said the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and another testing system the state may adopt, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, provide vital information on the performance of students, teachers, schools, and entire districts that can make educators more effective.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set to vote this fall on whether to retire the MCAS and shift all schools to the PARCC, which advocates say requires more critical thinking than other standardized tests.
Kalimah Rahim, an English teacher at New Mission High School in Hyde Park, said testing promotes accountability and ensures that students who are not getting the help they need do not slip through the cracks.
“When I went to school in the ’70s, it was possible to graduate from high school and be functionally illiterate,” Rahim said.
Bernadine Lormilus, a teacher at Hyde Park’s Channing Elementary School, tearfully described the ambitions of her diverse fifth-grade students to pursue professions such as medicine and law, saying that the PARCC exam would help prepare them for demanding work in college and beyond.
“I believe this is a civil rights issue,” Lormilus said.
Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, cautioned legislators that proposed moratoriums on using test scores to assess graduation readiness or to designate schools or districts as underperforming would run afoul of US education law, jeopardizing more than $200 million in federal funding.
But Louis J. Kruger, a professor of educational psychology at Northeastern University, said an MCAS score is not enough by itself to accurately assess student performance.
“The MCAS . . . is one measure among many potential measures,” Kruger said. “If we want a full picture of someone’s academic accomplishment, we have to use multiple measures, because any one measure is flawed.”
James E. McDermott, the state’s teacher of the year for 1988 and a member of the team that developed the MCAS, testified that the test was originally planned as part of a broader assessment system and was never intended to be used to measure performance from the level of individual students to entire school districts.
“We didn’t mean for it to be . . . [used] to assess teachers. It seems ridiculous now to me,” he said.