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JOANNA WEISS

Can the tide turn against standardized testing?

Barbara Madeloni is the president of the Mass. Teachers Association.
Barbara Madeloni is the president of the Mass. Teachers Association.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

In the fight against standardized testing, resistance can take many forms. When Barbara Madeloni was a 10th grade English teacher in the Pioneer Valley, she’d start MCAS days by giving her class a speech about love. She’d lead her students in yoga stretches and urge them to look out the window to “remind yourself that you’re human.”

These days, as the new president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Madeloni is leading a louder sort of fight. The union plans to introduce a bill this month that would put a three-year moratorium on using standardized tests for high-stakes purposes, such as halting graduation, evaluating teachers, or restructuring schools.

Yes, teachers have grumbled against testing and MCAS for as long as there has been testing and MCAS. But the bill could have a better-than-usual chance this year, for two reasons: A growing national backlash against standardized tests, and Barbara Madeloni.

Her victory in last year’s MTA elections was a big surprise: She hadn’t come through the union ranks, and she represented sweeping change. For years, the state’s largest teachers’ union had been seen as a partner, if sometimes reluctant, in education reform. Madeloni ran on a platform of no-more-concessions. She’s battle-tested, raised on Catholic liberation theology and 1960s civil rights protests. She lost her job training teachers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst after leading a vocal fight against a new way of licensing teachers.

She’s also a former psychotherapist, tough but sweet — like a favorite aunt who happens to be a revolutionary. A few years ago, when she learned that a Seattle high school teacher had led a schoolwide boycott of a standardized test, she sent the guy flowers. And she describes her movement in terms of teachers’ dreams.

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“Some narratives want it to be about anger, and certainly anger is a part of every form of activism,” she told me. “But what struck me on the campaign trail was the pain that people experienced . . . not being able to do the things that they hoped for.”

In her bid to lead a new resistance, she might find interesting partners. Just as Massachusetts seems poised to switch from MCAS to the Common Core-aligned PARCC test, a notion is gathering steam — here and nationwide — that our test-taking culture has gone too far. New books bemoan the state of affairs; opt-out movements have sprung up in places like Northampton and New York. Last fall, outgoing state Education Secretary Matthew Malone complained about “assessment gone wild,” and Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester ordered a study on whether we test too much.

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In the meantime, conservative groups chafe at PARCC and the Common Core. So does the Pioneer Institute, the influential free-market think tank where Governor Charlie Baker and his new secretary of education, James Peyser, once worked. (But Pioneer wants to stick with MCAS; Baker, who has voiced skepticism about the Core, has been steadfast in support of high-stakes tests.)

As a parent, it’s tough to know what the balance should be. Diagnostic testing has its place, to tell us where an individual child needs help and where a school can do better. Minimum standards are crucial. But you don’t have to be a ’60s-era rabble-rouser — or a charter school opponent or a Common Core foe — to wonder about overkill. Watch kids fret about tests, and learn about the diagnostic tests that are piled atop MCAS for the purpose of judging teachers, and discover that schools run pro-MCAS pep rallies, and see parents pore fretfully over MCAS rankings. . . before long, you’re ready to do a few downward dogs yourself, and head out in search of fresh air.

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Can we strike the right balance? The answer is elusive — even to Madeloni. She reserves judgment on the Core. And when I asked her if standardized testing should have any role at all, she was cautious.

“There’s a place for taking a temperature,” she said. But that measurement “doesn’t have to take place in every year and every grade and every school and every district.”

It’s an interesting notion — that Massachusetts, once a leader in setting educational standards, could help set new standards for a testing strategy that’s reasonable and sane. A year and a half ago, Madeloni noted, no one would have picked this state as “one of the places where it was clear that the tide was shifting.”

But here we are, and here she is. Charlie Baker, get ready to talk.


Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated who commissioned a study on whether Massachusetts tests too much. It was ordered by the commissioner of education.