I WAS going to write a column expressing my reservations about the MCAS, a 15-hour-long series of tests now being administered to fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-graders in every Massachusetts public school. I was going to point out that for all the ink and air time being devoted to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, as it's formally called, little is actually known about it. I was even going to suggest that with all the uneasy questions the MCAS raises, parents ought to exercise their legal right to keep their children from taking it.
For one thing, I was going to call attention to the spotty record of Advanced Systems, the Dover, N.H., company hired to devise and grade the 210,000 tests being administered this month. Advanced Systems lost its $32 million contract with the state of Kentucky after botching the scores of more than 1,000 elementary and middle schools. The state launched what Education Week called "a sweeping audit" of the company's performance, scrutinizing "how the mistake could have gone undetected for many months."
Kentucky wasn't the only state where Advanced Systems failed. Scores in Maine were miscalculated, too. In New Hampshire, skepticism runs so high that the state Senate wants an elaborate regimen of supervision over every aspect of Advanced Systems' operations. Has the company cleaned up its act, I was going to ask, or is Massachusetts also going to wind up with shoddy and unreliable data?
But incompetent scoring was the least of my concerns.
I was going to highlight the copycat nature of these "assessments." Other states have been administering similar tests, always linking them to the federal Goals 2000 and School-to-Work laws, both of which are considerably more creepy and New-World-Orderish than their innocuous names suggest. The very word "assessment" conveys something beyond mere measurement of academic achievement. Parents in state after state have discovered that their kids are being evaluated not just on their knowledge of language, math, and science, but on what they think, how they behave, and the way they were raised.
Would the MCAS, I was going to wonder, be as full of fuzzy PC questions on "feelings" and "attitudes" as tests elsewhere have been? If not, why have officials balked at a simple amendment to the 1993 Education Reform Act providing that the MCAS "shall be designed to avoid the gathering or measuring of individual student attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors"? No one, I was going to say, could object to a clarification so straightforward — unless the purpose of the assessments is in fact to probe students on matters that are none of the state's concern.
Such as? Well, the Pennsylvania Educational Quality Assessment instructed students to react to statements like "I often wish I were somebody else" and "I don't receive much attention at home." To measure their "tolerance," students were presented with 35 situations — such as "Your sister wants to marry a person whose religion is much different from yours and your family" and "You are asked to sit at a table with retarded students in the lunchroom" — and asked how comfortable or uncomfortable each would make them.
The California Learning Assessment System included loaded questions like this: "European Americans discriminated against Chinese immigrants because of ethnic and cultural differences. By yourself, think about an instance of discrimination that you know of. It could be a situation in which a person or a group of people is treated unfairly because of age, color, customs, or some other quality or belief. What could be done to help solve this problem?"
Kentucky told fourth-graders to imagine themselves Indians at the time the first pioneers arrived and to write "how you would have felt when you saw the pioneers cutting down trees and clearing land." Rhode Island grilled students on how often they like being in school ("Never? Sometimes? Always?"), whether they are happy with themselves "as a person," and how socially active their parents are.
I was going to quote the sweeping phrase in the Massachusetts ed-reform law that empowers the Department of Education to assemble a dossier on each student comprising "basic demographic information, program and course information, and such other information as the department shall determine necessary." I was going to describe the extraordinary secrecy that surrounds these tests in many states. Parents and school committee members are forbidden to see them, or are allowed to do so only if they sign nondisclosure agreements. The College Board isn't that mysterious about its SATs (each year it releases the previous year's tests). So why are many states so furtive about their "assessments?"
I distrust the MCAS. I am more than somewhat skeptical of the motives behind it and was going to write a column saying so.
But I have been persuaded not to jump to conclusions. I have been urged to wait for this first MCAS to play itself out, to see whether students report being asked anything dubious or improper. I have been reminded that this year's test will only set a benchmark — that not until 2003 will the tests actually have an impact on students' ability to graduate.
So I'll hold my doubts in abeyance. For now. I can always write that column another time.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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