Test Scores Setting Off The Alarm
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
The Massachusetts Department of Early and Secondary Education recently released the test results for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam that showed overall student achievement gains.
The test scores are trending upward, and the achievement gap between certain demographic groups is closing. Gains have been made especially by the state’s “turnaround schools,” which many educators have targeted as needing the most work to bring the scores up. Strides have been made among nearly all demographics, including African-American students, low-income students, students who are still learning English, and Latino students. One must be wary to make such positive blanket statements, however, without carefully reading the fine print.
Now, in no way do I intend to undermine the achievements of the educators in Massachusetts. These gains should be celebrated, and educators have a right to do so. Nonetheless, it is important to realize that, despite the upward trend, students—especially those in Boston public schools— are still behind their peers when it comes to science skills.
What was most alarming to me was the fact that, of all fifth graders tested on science and technology last spring, 42 percent of Boston students earned failing grades. Initially, this didn’t seem too worrisome because more than half passed, but then I read that, at a statewide level, only 14 percent of students failed this exam. That’s quite a large discrepancy, to say the least.
Science wasn’t the only subject that caused concerns for educators. English raised a red flag as well.
“We should all be alarmed that 39 percent of third graders are not proficient readers and that Massachusetts has made virtually no progress in third grade reading over the past decade,” said Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All. “We should all be concerned about the wide and persistent achievement gap. We know what to do to improve children’s literacy. We must act now on this knowledge.”
One in six children who struggle with reading in third grade do not finish high school by age 19. That statistic alone should provide an impetus for change, especially considering the fact that the average high school dropout in Massachusetts costs taxpayers an estimated $349,000 more over his/her lifetime in lower tax revenues and higher public assistance costs than the average high school graduate. It is a never-ending downward spiral that can be stopped only by education. Easier said than done though, right?
The magnitude of this challenge does not deter Mitchell Chester, the elementary and secondary education commissioner. Chester said that Massachusetts is considering altering the 10th grade exams so that they better reflect the expectations of higher educational institutions.
When speaking about a prototype of this test to be used in the spring of 2014, Chester said, “It’s not simply a question of should we raise the bar—it’s a question of, should we be more deliberate about giving students signal about their readiness for high school.”
Chester also indicated that the new goal for schools is to cut in half the number of students who are not passing the MCAS by the 2016 to 2017 school year. This may seem a bit too ambitious, but it is with ambition and a realistic look at the MCAS test results that educators turn around failing schools.