High-stakes testing under fire during Week of Action

Less Testing MTA members gathered at association headquarters before going to the State House to testify in favor of a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes use of standardized tests.

When an overflow crowd of about 250 supporters of a moratorium on high-stakes testing packed a Joint Committee on Education hearing on June 11, 2015, the committee was forced to move to the much larger Gardner Auditorium.

The turnout came just one day after nearly as many educators and residents attended a PARCC forum in Bridgewater to express their concerns about the explosion in high-stakes testing.

“It was truly uplifting to see so many educators, parents and students turn out in the middle of the week in the heart of Boston to stand up for their students and their schools,” MTA President Barbara Madeloni said after the State House hearing. “We are at the beginning of a marathon, but we are on our way.”

The two hearings were the culmination of a Week of Action organized by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, of which the MTA is a founding member.

The week began with thousands of members and students wearing “Less Testing/More Learning” stickers and posting that message on social media using the hashtag #lesstesting. Next, legislators were contacted at in-district meetings and through phone calls. They were asked to support House 340, an MTA-backed bill that would impose a three-year moratorium on the high-stakes use of standardized tests.

MTA President Barbara Madeloni testified in support of House Bill 340 on June 11 as AFT Massachusetts President Tom Gosnell looked on. MTA President Barbara Madeloni testified in support of House 340 on June 11 as AFT Massachusetts President Tom Gosnell looked on.

H.B. 340 was one of a number of pieces of legislation considered during the June 11 hearing, including several bills to halt or reduce the use of high-stakes standardized tests.

MTA members also turned out in force for the PARCC forum at Bridgewater State University on the evening of June 10, as did a contingent of Tea Party supporters who found some common ground with teachers in opposing the heavy hand of both corporate interests and the federal government in public education.

A large majority of the participants at the State House hearing wore the “Less Testing/More Learning” stickers, which were distributed statewide by the MEJA. Speaking in favor of high-stakes tests were representatives of Teach Plus, Stand for Children and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, along with top state education officials.

Representative Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), who chaired the hearing, admonished the participants not to cheer, so the crowd of moratorium supporters adopted a practice from the Occupy movement, wagging their fingers in the air to show support for compelling statements.

Carrie Foley, an Easthampton special education teacher, got up at 4 a.m. to make it to a pre-hearing briefing at the MTA. She stayed at the State House until the hearing ended at about 5 p.m.

“This is my first time being involved in something like this with the MTA,” she said. “It was so inspiring to see how many public school teachers were here. We were everywhere!”

Ryker Gibson, 11, and his mother, Kim Gibson, president of the Brockton Education Association, attended the PARCC hearing.Ryker Gibson, 11, and his mother, Kim Gibson, president of the Brockton Education Association, attended the PARCC hearing.

In her testimony, Foley described how she was pulled out of her classroom for 20 days to administer PARCC tests to small groups of students.

“When a special education child who needs intensive services misses services for 20 days, that is a frustrating experience to watch,” she told the education committee members who were still left at the end of the long day. “These students have my heart. They are amazing kids. And they will likely not graduate because of these tests.”

Foley and others were frustrated that classroom teachers had to wait nearly five hours before it was their turn to testify. The silver lining is that the delay was in part because about a dozen legislators testified before them, virtually all in favor of H.B. 340 or another bill curtailing testing and related mandates.

Representative Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge), the chief sponsor of H.B. 340, said that she grew up in public housing in Cambridge and “bombed” on every standardized test she ever took, but nonetheless did well in college.

She understands from her own experience what retired Malden educator Louise London-Choate said during her testimony: “Not all kids learn the same way, or at the same speed. Students have their own learning styles. Every child is unique. Some kids do not test well. They may be plenty bright, but they do not do well in a testing situation.”

In making the case for testing, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chair Paul Sagan elicited groans of disbelief when he testified that a BESE survey showed that 40 percent of districts spend only two days a year preparing students for state-mandated tests. Even legislators pushed back against that assertion.

“I’m hearing from teachers in the trenches, and they tell me that they are spending much more time than that and are losing time for creativity,” said Representative Paul Tucker (D-Salem).

Deb McCarthy, activist and member of the Hull Teachers Association, began her testimony while charging down the auditorium stairs so as not to waste time. She said that she would have liked to respond to Sagan directly since her reality is much different from his: Educators in her school spend six weeks preparing for the tests and 11 days administering them.

Senator Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville) was one of several members of the committee who questioned claims that standardized tests improve teaching and learning.

When a young Teach Plus teacher credited MCAS with inspiring a lesson that involved kindergartners building a castle, Jehlen asked her if she was aware that young students were building castles, creating rainforests and otherwise receiving good, project-based education long before MCAS was implemented 17 years ago.

Also speaking with a historical perspective was James McDermott, a former member of the BESE and a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year who now teaches at Clark University. McDermott was involved in the creation of MCAS, which he said was supposed to be a “comprehensive” assessment system, not a single high-stakes test.

He ticked off a list of nine important lessons he has learned since then. The first lesson, he said, is this: “A teaching philosophy centered on high-stakes testing is educationally unsound.”

Brian Fitzgerald, a Wareham educator, was joined by many others in talking about the inhumanity of the testing regimen that teachers are required to enforce.

He pleaded with the committee to “stop, take a breath and consider a system where one of my students faints during the test and is penalized on her score for her ‘churlishness’ of fainting during the test.”

State House Hearing Photos