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For accountability in public schools, keep testing

There are legitimate concerns over testing in some Massachusetts schools, but testing foes have gone overboard in pressing for a three-year moratorium on so-called high-stakes tests. Their proposal is a blunt instrument rather than a well-crafted public policy prescription, one that could have a serious impact on the federal education dollars Massachusetts receives.

The legislation would impose a three-year hiatus on using either the MCAS or PARCC test (the state hasn’t yet made a final decision on which will be its future exam) as a graduation requirement for students or to assess school districts or use in the evaluation of teachers.

This legislation is a top priority for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which recently urged lawmakes “to submit written or oral testimony . . . in support of this bill.” A dozen senators and some three dozen representatives, including a number of Republicans, have signed on to the bill, whose lead sponsor is Representative Marjorie Decker, Democrat of Cambridge.


Problems with the legislation abound.

For starters, the MCAS has been a key tool in improving public education in Massachusetts, which is now recognized as a national educational leader.

On the fiscal front, Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner, warns that such a moratorium would jeopardize this state’s waiver from the national No Child Left Behind law, and that losing that waiver could spell an end to the flexibility the state enjoys in its use of federal education dollars. Four-fifths of school districts in the state could then be required to spend a total of $40 million to support school choice and provide tutoring, Chester says. The federal Department of Education did not respond promptly to a Globe query on that matter, but it recently warned Oregon that antitesting legislation could endanger federal dollars.

Although Decker downplays those worries, she acknowledges that the MTA originally wanted the legislation to stipulate that the state would compensate districts for any federal dollars lost due to the moratorium; that suggests the union itself realizes this proposal could affect federal funding. Some proponents say that, because the moratorium isn’t on giving state tests but rather on the way they are used, it won’t trip federal triggers. But how, exactly, would continuing to give a state test, while simply restricting the use of the results, address concerns about over-testing?


Further, despite the talk of endless school hours lost to test preparation, the evidence isn’t persuasive. According to a recent study commissioned by the state Board of Education, 43 percent of school districts surveyed reported spending fewer than two days per year preparing for state exams, while another 40 percent said they spent between three and five days doing so.

For most districts, then, preparing for the state assessments doesn’t consume an excessive amount of time. Those aren’t the only tests administered, of course. But the proposed moratorium on state tests would do nothing to address any other testing that districts themselves do.

Finally, despite their “less testing, more learning” slogan, those advocating the moratorium don’t have a compelling answer for a baseline question: Absent assessments like the MCAS or PARCC, how can the state be sure students are mastering necessary material? After all, one regular complaint in the pre-education-reform era was that kids were graduating from high school without the skills needed to succeed. The legislation’s approach — impose a moratorium and then have a commission figure that out — is exactly backwards.

It goes without saying that legislators shouldn’t simply take their cue from the MTA. They need to consider the full range of effects from such a policy change. They haven’t done that homework in a convincing way here.



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