The dust is settling after the Great Testing Debate, and Massachusetts has opted for a baby-splitting MCAS 2.0 compromise that incorporates some “next generation” testing components. A major rationale for that decision was the Baker administration’s insistence that the state maintain control over education policy: State control should not be limited to the actual assessment, but should also include what and how often we test.
For two decades, standardized testing has driven higher-quality content into our classrooms. It has ensured equity and accountability, and shined a light on schools and districts that are and aren’t demonstrating academic progress.
But with federal policy makers pushing a brand of standardized testing fetishism, Massachusetts should recommit to its original vision — testing less overall and in fewer grade levels, but testing more subjects to ensure a rounded education.
A little history provides valuable context. In 1992, Massachusetts lacked standards and standardized tests. The main author of the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, former Senate President Tom Birmingham, has noted that, before the 1993, reform “there were two state-imposed requirements to receive a diploma: one year of American history and four years of gym.”
Recognizing the gulf between the curricula in disadvantaged communities and the academic content ubiquitous in wealthier suburbs, Birmingham advanced testing to bring a high-quality liberal arts curriculum into all Massachusetts classrooms. The reform has worked, significantly raising our students’ achievement levels on national and international tests.
It is worth remembering that the 1993 reform called for high-stakes standardized testing in four grades. If comparable to the MCAS today, its modest testing requirements in English-language arts, or ELA, and math would have taken less than 20 hours over the course of a student’s K-12 career. Gradually, the law called for testing in the sciences, which has since been implemented, and in US history and the arts, which has not.
Under the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, MCAS testing time grew to 30 hours over seven grades. Race to the Top and PARCC would have brought standardized testing to nine grades and, even with Massachusetts’ adjustments, more than 80 hours for ELA and math alone.
Unlike the feds’ testing obsession, which narrowly focuses on ELA and math, Massachusetts law calls for a set of curricular standards and tests that cover a broader set of disciplines. Excessive federal testing mandates for reading and math have curbed the appetite of Massachusetts policy makers to fulfill the state’s 1993 vision of ensuring high-quality instruction across all core subjects.
The impact on US history has been especially severe. In some districts, history has been absorbed into an ELA-heavy “humanities” department.
As for the arts, we have too long seen them as “specials” and accepted a curriculum that is less thoroughly vetted than is the case for ELA, math, and science. A thorough arts curriculum would provide students the opportunity to deepen their understanding of culture and the sciences, and develop workforce skills through instruction that encompasses basic drafting, architectural, and hands-on spatial relations, music, dance, theater, and more.
Unfortunately, national politics has not allowed for a rational testing debate. Massachusetts is no exception; the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers would use any legislative reopening of the issue to shut down standardized testing tout court.
Congress is currently considering a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which will again require reading and math testing in seven grades. Massachusetts should lead the national education policy conversation by seeking a federal waiver from the law to do what is best for Massachusetts’ students and to fulfill the balanced, farsighted vision set forth 22 years ago.
Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.