Following the recent announcement of a waiver granted to Massachusetts exempting it and nine other states from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, we received a number of questions from members of our community asking what this change will mean for Boston Arts Academy. I am disappointed to say that my answer is “not nearly enough.”
At Boston Arts Academy we have been advocating for several years, within Massachusetts and nationally, for an alternate accountability system that relies on performance assessments rather than standardized testing. Performance assessments are tasks students perform over a long period of time to demonstrate a depth of understanding, tasks such as writing a research paper or presenting a solution to a math word problem. We believe that performance assessments are better measures of what our students know and are able to do than tests that ask students to choose an answer from a set of given choices. For the past three years we have been part of a consortium of New England schools building a performance assessment system that we would argue is just as reliable and valid as the MCAS. Teachers in this assessment pilot work, across schools, to construct performance assessments and to score each other’s student work. We have found that such an approach not only gives us solid evidence of our students’ achievement, it gives us an opportunity to reflect and refine our practice. That’s what a good assessment system should do.
But this waiver does not allow schools to substitute an alternative accountability system. Under this waiver, our students, like all students in public schools in Massachusetts, will continue to have to pass exams to graduate. For the next few years, students must pass the English MCAS, the Math MCAS, and a Science MCAS (at BAA, students take the Engineering MCAS). A condition of the waiver was that Massachusetts participate in the new national standards and corresponding assessments, for Massachusetts the PARCC tests. We expect these assessments to be rolled out in English and in Math in the next two to three years, and they will replace the English and Math MCAS exams. We are concerned about the form these new assessments will take; current discussions suggest that they will be computer-based tests that will require students to read and respond to prompts on a screen. Moreover, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has not signaled its intention to change anything about the MCAS Science or proposed MCAS History exams. The sample exam we have seen of the proposed History MCAS, with its emphasis on breadth of factual knowledge of American history, would functionally eliminate our interdisciplinary Humanities curriculum. Rather than giving students the opportunity to do in-depth research, we fear we would be forced to ask students to memorize a long list of names and dates.
We were pleased to see that the waiver does end a deadline for bringing all students to “proficiency” on the English and Math MCAS by 2014; many have questioned the logic of a mark that 80% of Massachusetts schools will not make. But the waiver introduces a new measure: Massachusetts will require schools to cut achievement gaps as measured on the exams in half by 2017. Proficiency in English and Math for all students and the elimination of the achievement gap are laudable goals that we share. We are greatly concerned about the gap in our own students’ performance. But we question the rigidity of a system that measures progress solely on the basis of testing. The waiver changes the specific measure being scrutinized, but the reliance on standardized exams as the only measure of learning that “counts” remains the same. While we agree that the goal of closing the achievement gap should be a priority, we argue that test scores are not the best way to measure that it has been closed. Performance assessments provide much richer data about achievement.
Finally, many members of our faculty are concerned about the language in the waiver that connects teachers’ and principals’ evaluations to results on these standardized assessments. Such so-called “value added” evaluation systems have already been implemented in some parts of the country to highly questionable results. A recent study by NYU economist Sean Corcoran for the Annenberg Institute, for example, points to the wide margins of error in ratings based on test results. My own view reflects that of education historian Diane Ravitch: “[An evaluation system based on standardized testing] has a wide margin of error. It is unstable. A teacher who is highly effective one year may get a different rating the next year depending on which students are assigned to his or her class. Ratings may differ if the tests differ. To the extent it is used, it will narrow the curriculum and promote teaching to tests. Teachers will be mislabeled and stigmatized. [And many] factors that influence student scores will not be counted at all.” Just as we object to limited and limiting measures of our students’ learning, so too do we object to such a narrow conception of teacher and principal effectiveness.
In short, there is still much work to be done. At Boston Arts Academy we continue to stand for assessment that truly measures students’ achievement and gives teachers data they can use to refine their instruction. Most importantly, as an arts school, we are well grounded in the pedagogy of exhibition and performance as true measures of learning, and we will continue to argue that all students should have such opportunities to demonstrate understanding. We will feel confident that we have made real progress on the achievement gap when all of our students’ performance assessments show depth of understanding, not when the test scores go up.
Anne R. Clark is the Associate Head of School and a founding teacher of Boston Arts Academy, a pilot school for the visual and performing arts within the Boston Public Schools. She received the National Educator Award from the Milken Family Foundation in 2008 and was a finalist for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org