Educators and parents call for rethinking testing and other education policies

Educators and parents call for rethinking testing and other education policies

Kenza Wahman
Kenza Wahman, a sixth-grader from Hull, told legislators why she opted out of MCAS and why recess should be mandatory. Also testifying were Hull teacher Deborah McCarthy and state Representative Joan Meschino (D-Hull).

Educators, parents, students and legislators testified on Beacon Hill on Sept. 12 in favor of a bill that would make significant improvements in state education policy, including imposing a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing and requiring the state to fully fund the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission.

"This bill provides a blueprint for a better way to educate our students,” said MTA President Barbara Madeloni.

One of the stars of the hearing was Kenza Wahman, a sixth-grade student from Hull who opted out of the MCAS last year because she said it “doesn’t show who I am.” She also spoke passionately against depriving students of recess as a punishment.

"We look forward to recess like adults look forward to a coffee break,” Kenza said, noting that “even prisoners get to walk the yard for an hour a day.”

The lead sponsors of An Act Strengthening and Investing in our Educators, Students and Communities (S. 308), are Senator Michael Rush (D-Boston) and Representative Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge).

“This comprehensive education legislation is based on concerns that educators and parents express about our current education system,” said Rush. “This bill takes a hard look at the effects of high-stakes standardized tests, updates the foundation budget formula, mandates recess for grades K-5, encourages more learning time in history and civics, and promotes community collaboration for underperforming schools."

Among other measures, S. 308:
  • Implements the funding recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission, which determined that public schools are underfunded by at least $1 billion a year.
  • Mandates a three-year moratorium on the use of standardized testing to make high-stakes decisions (for example, in the educator evaluation system and to assess the performance of schools and districts).
  • Establishes a commission to make recommendations about better assessment methods.
  • Promotes child development by mandating at least 20 minutes of recess a day in grades K-5 and by giving districts more latitude in deciding how to educate English language learners.
  • Shifts the focus of school and district accountability from sanctions to support, including a requirement that the state provide targeted resources to schools whose students are struggling before taking punitive action.
  • Promotes workplace fairness by maintaining employment rights for teachers of struggling high-need students to ensure that experienced, capable educators are involved in school improvement efforts.

Download a Bill Summary

The bill has broad support, including 105 co-sponsors in the Legislature and strong backing by the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of parent, educator, student, labor, community and civil rights organizations that helped lead the charge against last fall’s charter school expansion ballot initiative, Question 2.

Deborah McCarthy, a fifth-grade teacher and president of the Hull Teachers Association, testified about the negative impact that high-stakes testing is having on students. “Public education is under siege,” she told legislators, adding: “I want to hold you accountable for the 11 days of high-stakes testing my students endure. Every year our school becomes a warehouse for testing."

McCarthy said that students’ schedules are uprooted for three months a year in preparation for the testing. “Many were frustrated, anxious and depressed when faced with developmentally inappropriate test questions,” she said.

Jack Schneider, an assistant education professor at the College of the Holy Cross, said, “We claim that test scores measure school quality when they really measure family income.”

A national leader in working to create alternatives to high-stakes testing, Schneider was asked by the committee chair what single measure he would look at to assess school quality if he could look at only one.

“The first thing I’d look at is teacher turnover not due to retirements,” he said. “Who knows their schools better than the people who work there? If teachers are leaving, that’s a powerful indicator.”

Dan Monahan, a Cambridge math and science teacher and president of the Cambridge Education Association, testified that the focus on math and English language arts test results narrows the curriculum.

"As a former science instructional coach, I saw science relegated to one or two short periods a week in our elementary schools, and it was usually the first subject to go if something had to be cut,” he said. “In addition, many schools and teachers have done away with interdisciplinary projects to focus on just what will be measured on the tests.”

Jackie Lawrence, a special education teacher and president of the Somerville Teachers Association, said that the current system has led to increased competition and decreased collaboration, driving good teachers out of classrooms serving high-need students.

“When teachers are judged based on their students’ test scores, that creates all kinds of problems,” she said. “Students with learning disabilities and those from high-need backgrounds often don’t score as well on tests as those who don’t face similar challenges. Slapping negative labels on educators and schools based on their students’ scores drives teachers away. We see that manifested in alarming teacher turnover rates in schools and districts that are given the ‘underperforming’ label. This is extremely disruptive to the important bonds that need to be built over time.”

Deb Gesualdo and Jackie Lawrence
Somerville Teachers Association President Jackie Lawrence, left, and Malden Education Association President Deb Gesualdo testified in support of S.308.

Many people also testified in favor of the increased funding that would be required under S. 308. “Chances that my students have for success should not depend on their ZIP code,” said Deborah Gesualdo, a Malden music teacher and president of the Malden Education Association.

“It’s time to resource all schools so students have the one-on-one support they need, learning opportunities that begin by age 4, modern tools and textbooks, inviting classrooms, and well-rounded curriculum,” she added. “All of our schools in Massachusetts should provide support services to the school community that include nutrition, health and after-school programs for the students and families who need it. Public schools that are resourced are an investment in the future of America.”

Maureen Colgan Posner, president of the Springfield Education Association, said, “Lack of funding and high-stakes testing are forcing districts like Springfield to make decisions that are harmful to our students.”

Mary Cummings, a retired Arlington special education teacher and MTA Senate district coordinator, also testified about testing. “We need appropriate assessments that show teachers not only what students know but also how they communicate and use that knowledge to solve problems,” she said. “Assessments should be varied and include real 21st-century tasks. There are several alternative and more effective methods of assessing students’ skills and knowledge. We need to take at least three years to carefully consider those methods and develop one or more of our own.”

Madeloni concluded, "We need real innovation in education. The innovation we seek requires loosening bureaucratic constraints, providing schools with adequate funds to meet their students’ needs, committing to teaching the whole child, and unleashing educators’ creativity by giving them more autonomy and respect.”

Other MTA members who testified at the hearing in favor of S. 308 were Matthew Bach, an Andover educator; Sheila Hanley, a retired Randolph educator; Kerry Costello, president of the Andover Education Association; Robert Kostka, a retired Bridgewater-Raynham educator; Thomas Meyers, a retired Andover educator; Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at UMass Amherst; Andrei Joseph, a retired Concord-Carlisle educator; and John Bookston, a retired Arlington educator.

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