MTA President Merrie Najimy delivered the following testimony to the members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education today:
I am Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, here to testify about the racially offensive Grade 10 MCAS question regarding the book “The Underground Railroad” and to call for lifting the MCAS gag rule and holding harmless all of the students who took this year’s English language arts test.
Students reported being traumatized by having to write an essay from the point of view of a racist character in Colson Whitehead’s crucial book. The author himself said he was “appalled and disgusted” that his novel was misused in this way.
It’s because a few brave students and educators ignored the high-stakes consequences of discussing the MCAS that the harm you have caused was exposed. No one in DESE showed the same courage by taking responsibility for a racist question making it to the test! Instead, you scratched your heads and shifted the blame.
Because of the gag order placed on students that bars them from discussing the MCAS, and the restriction placed on educators to view the questions — even during field-testing — we don't know how many other offensive questions related to race or gender have made it through to other MCAS tests.
When the proprietary rights and the security of the test questions outweigh our students’ emotional well-being, it exposes yet another failure of the accountability system. This is educational malpractice at all grade levels — and it is plainly unjust that a high school student’s diploma depends on the results of a test that is shrouded in secrecy.
So this gag rule has got to go.
The “Underground Railroad” test item created a moral dilemma for students of color and white students alike, and threw off many students’ performance on the remainder of the test. When testing variables are dramatically inconsistent — as they were in this situation — the results are skewed and the test invalidated statewide. Therefore this year, all 10th-grade students should be held harmless. That doesn’t mean all students should get a diploma, no matter what. They would still have to meet district graduation requirements. But they should not be denied a diploma based on a flawed exam.
Suspending the MCAS graduation requirement is not detrimental. MCAS has not reduced the “achievement gap.” Standardized tests are neither a prerequisite for learning nor a legitimate measure of students’ overall success. With the exception of student representative Maya Mathews, none of you on this board had to pass a standardized test to get a diploma. Yet you have all become successful human beings with good jobs.
This is a turning point. It is time for this board to reconsider using MCAS as the Competency Determination measure. First and foremost, students of color will succeed when they have the same access to fully funded schools as their more privileged white counterparts.
Teacher-developed, classroom-based assessments have always provided more meaningful, timely and educationally beneficial information about our students than high-stakes tests have. They promote and assess learning without distorting the curriculum in the way that MCAS has done. That’s why in polling, more than 80 percent of our members consistently oppose the high-stakes MCAS system.
Do not squander this opportunity to rethink the purpose of education in Massachusetts and how to best assess whether our goals are being met. Our students are more than a score.