What would be fair?

This week I was asked at a Team Meeting what I thought about particular student’s participation in MCAS (this student has serious health issues which limit school participation). Was there an alternate way to assess this student that would enable us to know what had been achieved?

And that got me thinking about what I really feel about MCAS, this 4-day brain drain.

I get that standardized testing and MCAS is a part of teaching now. I get that teachers need to be help accountable for teaching the state (and now federal) standards. Honestly, watching my student navigate the Mathematics tests this past week made me realize that there are some weaknesses in the curriculum that was delivered. My teaching will be informed by my students’ performance on the test — a test which, by the way, I thought was reasonable.

What I don’t understand is how one high-stakes test can serve as the ultimate measure of my students’ achievement, particularly when more than half of my students are English Language Learners. Six and a quarter hours of correctly spoken and written English each day can only go so far – the vocabulary that English speakers take for granted is daunting for many of my students.

And before anyone’s shorts are tied in a knot about second languages, let me say that I wish those who disparage people whose first language is not English tried to take that test in another language that they were in the process of learning. My experience in learning a second language, a Romance and therefore related language, was and is one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever encountered. I think if you attempted an important reading/writing task in a second language, you too might be hanging onto new vocabulary by the tips of your fingernails. I’m not advocating for abandoning the goal of performing in English — that is the language of business in this country and therefore, the way to economic success — I’m just saying cut these English speaking/writing “toddlers” a little slack on the high stakes tests.

What would be fair? Well for one thing, look at my students’ growth over the year. We have data for that – Fountas Pinnell Benchmarks, SRI Reading tests, Writing Portfolios, and district-wide Math assessments. Consider these as well as the MCAS when commenting on my students’ achievement. Look at the Massachusetts Growth data — are we making progress? Is it just at a slower rate than the students in more affluent, parent-involved suburbs?

We need to look at a more complete picture of our students before pointing fingers of blame at educators. Nothing in education is black and white – we aren’t producing widgets on an assembly line. To know what students know and don’t know, we need to dig deeply. Standardized state testing should be just one item to consider.

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