MCAS test backlash has local superintendent taking new approach

HOLLISTON, Mass. -- This September, teachers in Holliston heard a startling message from School Superintendent Brad Jackson: "My message to them was I'm taking off your handcuffs."

For years, teachers in Holliston and many other districts have felt shackled to the practice of 'Teaching to the Test', and devoting more and more classroom time readying students to take the state's standardized assessment exam known as MCAS.

Poor scores on MCAS can mean penalties for school districts. The worst-case scenario for a deficient school would be a state take-over. "

That's a pretty Draconian intervention," said Jeff Wulfson, Acting Commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Education. "It's a pretty small number we've actually gone in."

From 2014 to 2016, the state identified about a dozen schools as "underperforming." The state currently lists four schools as "chronically underperforming."

Overall, however, the Bay State has an excellent reputation when it comes to education. In fact, a recent U.S. News and World Report named Massachusetts the Best State for Education, just ahead of New Hampshire.

MCAS scores can also have an impact on real estate values -- as some homebuyers see them as a reflection of school quality.

"School systems, for families that have children, are probably the most important criteria in a home search and a community search process," says Paul Yorkis, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors.

But a growing number of educators are questioning the value of MCAS, including Superintendent Jackson.

"I just can't sit still anymore and let it happen without adding my voice to the chorus of people who are concerned we are moving in the wrong direction," he said.

What finally turned Jackson off was the feeling the tests are, in the long run, irrelevant -- because they don't assess what employers want to see in future applicants.

"None of these tests test for creativity, test the ability to problem solve, test the ability to work together in a group," said Jackson. "I think we need to have students who are great communicators. I think we need to have students who are great thinkers, who are able to think strategically and who are able to collaborate with each other."

Standardized test critic Monty Neill says MCAS has created a culture of fear in school systems, and that has changed how kids are taught.

"You end up with a system that is punitive, that is test-prep oriented, that turns kids off, that turns teachers off," says Neill. "We believe there have been far more harmful consequences than any possible good outcomes to all this testing."

Neill says job satisfaction among teachers is also plummeting because they are spending so much time on MCAS preparation. "Some of them are moving to private schools where the pay is lower but at least they can teach."

Deborah McCarthy has been teaching 5th graders in Hull for more than 20 years, but said increased MCAS prep has changed the system.

"I live and breath teaching," she said. But that living and breathing is becoming more labored, McCarthy said. "In the last seven years, our school has become a district that is dedicated to the outcome of scores."

It's not just teachers feeling disillusioned by the testing.

"It doesn't tell you who I am," says high school senior Ismael Macias of Boston. "It doesn't tell you what I've been through. It's just making me another number."

"School is just preparing you for that test," adds Marcos Esmurria, also a high school senior from Boston. "Nothing really for life and how you should live your life."

That is Brad Jackson's point, precisely. He questions not just the validity of MCAS -- but the relevancy of elementary and secondary education as a whole.

"Back in 1892, this group of people called the Group Of Ten -- Andrew Carnegie and those types of people were on it. And they actually put together a curriculum -- a national curriculum," said Jackson.

That curriculum persists -- even though subjects such as Algebra and Trigonometry may have little practical application to everyday, modern life, he says.

"I think we have to have those conversations about what is it we want our high school graduates to know and be able to do."

Not teaching to the test could have implications on the customarily high test scores in Holliston, Jackson said. But he's not anticipating the bottom falling out -- and he says worrying about the scores is missing the larger point.

"If you're concerned that the scores on a test that's measuring something that is unimportant for a student to know, if you're concerned that those test scores are going to go down, then maybe you should find something else to be concerned about," he said.

Jackson added, "If I can graduate students who leave Holliston High School with passion and commitment and focus on their future, who are able to work with others, communicate and collaborate, and problem-solve with others and have a good global perspective and have a view of what they want to do in life, I think, frankly, I'm serving them better."