Cassellius puts moratorium on district’s standardized tests
Some tests are optional, end-of-year assessments dropped
Lee K-8 School teacher Colum Whyte reached his breaking point two weeks ago while he watched some of his sixth-grade students come to tears as they attempted to answer questions on a reading assessment test, one of 11 standardized tests they’re required to take in an average year.
As a teacher at the Lee school since 2005, Whyte has seen it all before.
“The tests are poorly written,” he says. “They’re often culturally inappropriate and way above the sixth-grade reading level.”
To add to the difficulty, this year, students were taking a Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test on Chromebooks, and they were having technical difficulties.
“The Chromebooks were glitching,” he said. “I had kids crying while taking it.”
He snapped a cellphone photo of a student crying while trying to take the test, then fired off an angry email to Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, stating his refusal to administer the test to his fifth-grade students.
Days later, Cassellius announced a moratorium on district-mandated testing.
“For this school year, we will take a pause in requiring that schools administer specific assessments,” the letter reads. “Doing so will enable us to evaluate our current practice and to ensure our assessment strategy fully complements our strategy for curriculum and instruction.”
In her letter, Cassellius cited a need to “reserve instructional time for learning rather than testing.”
In a statement sent to the Banner, the superintendent elaborated.
“It’s critical that teachers have as much classroom time as possible to spend on teaching, and that tests are used to provide information about students’ progress,” she wrote. “I have always said that if a test doesn’t help a teacher teach and a student learn, then we shouldn’t be using it.”
Under the moratorium, schools have been given the autonomy to determine whether they administer interim screens and reading assessments, such as the ones Whyte administered at the Lee School. End-of-year assessments in math and ELA will no longer be given.
Additionally, the TerraNova test, administered to determine admission to Advanced Work Class, an accelerated program offered in grades four through six at some BPS schools, will not be administered after third grade. Students may be selected to enter Advanced Work Class after the fourth grade year based on their scores from third grade.
The state-mandated MCAS exam, implemented as part of the 1993 Education Reform Act, is not included in the moratorium, but a battery of tests and assessments that have been adopted by Boston Public Schools is.
Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said excessive testing has long been an issue of concern to teachers.
“One of the very first organizing committees we started at the Boston Teachers Union was Less Testing, More Learning,” she said.
Teachers were frustrated what Tang said is the “misuse and overuse of testing,” including multiple assessments, the MCAS exam and Measures of Academic Progress tests.
The rise of the testing regime
Opponents of standardized testing point to George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind law as the beginning of a barrage of standardized tests that propelled children in the United States to become the most tested students in the developed nations, with students in the 66 largest districts taking an average of 122 tests from kindergarten through 12th grade.
In Boston, Tang said, teachers have had to administer as many as 30 days of tests in a 180-day school year. While not every test takes a full day, as does the MCAS, the strain on instruction time has been considerable, she said. At the Orchard Gardens K-8, sixth, seventh and eighth graders were scheduled to take tests on 33 days this school year — nearly one in five days.
Susan McGlone, who teaches sixth grade humanities at Orchard Gardens, says she’s not opposed to the idea of testing, but rather to the volume of tests to which her students are subjected — Terra Nova tests administered to newly-arrived immigrants who speak little English, the glitchy computer-administered MAP test and practice tests for the MCAS test.
“For every day they’re in a test, the kids are not learning,” McGlone said. “It’s become a big business.”
Since Bush signed NCLB into law, the testing industry has tripled in size, becoming a nearly $4 billion industry. Explaining NCLB to a group of investment analysts in a 2001 meeting, then chief executive of the publishing juggernaut Pearson Education reportedly said, “This almost reads like our business plan.”
The U.K.-based Pearson PLC, which saw its education division’s profits increase 175 percent over the next 10 years, administers many of the tests Boston schools use to assess student progress. Until recently, Pearson Education has been the largest of the three leading firms selling to schools curricula that are aligned with the tests mandated by the state and the federal government.
Whyte is dismissive of such curricula.
“They want kids to go on a computer and have a blended learning experience based on the test,” he said.
While the curricula provided by testing companies such as Pearson help schools ensure that students are taught the material that will be covered by the tests used to assess a school’s performance, the testing regimen has in many cases narrowed the range of subjects taught in public and charter schools.
Because school leaders know their schools’ performance will be assessed based on student performance on math and English tests, other subjects such as art, music, physical education, science and history have been dropped in schools across the U.S., as well as in many Massachusetts schools.
“Overuse of testing has totally squeezed out enrichment opportunities, content that otherwise would be provided — and the love of learning,” Tang said.
The education business has been profitable for Pearson, which reportedly earned $470 million in revenue in the U.S. last year. Pearson has been active in the local market, and appears to want to keep it that way. Last year, Pearson paid Boston-based Preti Strategies $60,000 to lobby the Massachusetts legislature.
In February, Pearson sold its courseware business to Nexus Capital Management, a Los Angeles-based private equity firm, for $250 million. As part of the deal, Pearson will get 20 percent of net proceeds from future sales of tests and curricula.
Lisa Guisbond, director of Boston-based Citizens for Public Schools, says education leaders like Cassellius are beginning to turn the tide on testing.
“We see signs on the national landscape that the pendulum is swinging the other way,” she said.
When the Obama administration rolled out its Common Core standards in 2011, 45 states planned to use PARCC or similar assessments as a graduation requirement. This year, just 16 states are still using such assessments.
While Cassellius has not yet determined all the tests the district will ultimately drop, Whyte says he’s encouraged by this year’s moratorium.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “With the superintendent’s response, I feel vindicated.”