A Bill Calling for a Moratorium on Test Score-Based School and District Ratings

How the state’s rating system for schools and districts hurts children

What gets tested, gets taught.
Schools are rated on a narrow range of skills. Everything else – social studies, art, music, social skills, organizational skills, physical education – is [de-emphasized] so our students can be taught the specific set of English, math, and in some grades, science skills they will encounter on the Test.

Some schools resist the pressure more than others, but virtually none are using their time the way they would if they had the freedom to give each child the best possible education, without having to maximize scores.

Even if MCAS were the perfect measure of school quality, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s rating formula measures student background more than school quality. MCAS raw scores measure everything the student has learned in a lifetime, in and out of school. MCAS growth scores reflect what has happened in school in the past year. Yet the state formula is based three quarters on raw scores and only one quarter on growth scores. Teachers are not rated that way. Federal officials and scientists say it’s not fair and does not show school quality. But DESE has resisted all attempts to reform its ratings.

Local people know best.
Massachusetts has a tradition of local control of the schools for a reason. School committees, parents, and local educators have more expertise when it comes to understanding their own children than state bureaucrats. State intervention works sometimes but it also fails often.

In those rare, extreme cases where local officials have crossed the line, the state has other ways to intervene than to use blunt formulas. In Lawrence, currently the DESE’s showcase for success, the state was deeply involved since 1997. In fact, the superintendent whose indictment for embezzlement set the stage for state takeover had been hired with state approval.

Fear is the enemy of innovation.
As Ludlow Supt. Todd Gazda has written, “Fear pervades the public education system in this country today. The consequences from the state for any decline in scores are so great that administrators and teachers are afraid to be truly innovative, because when you push the boundaries you risk failure.”

When you try a new path, you have to expect rough spots even if the direction is right. Our “turnaround” schools have three years to raise their scores, and sometimes even that is cut short. So they must use the simplest, most shortsighted approaches — test prep, and scripted or semi-scripted programs. Even if they succeed in raising scores, their students are not being prepared to take initiative, work together, and solve problems.

It’s time to step back and take a deep breath. We face serious problems in many of our schools. But one-size-fits-all, top-down edicts have not solved them and will not solve them.

Let’s call a moratorium on the score-based labels, the turnarounds, and the state takeovers. Then let’s bring together all those who take part in public education – teachers, parents, administrators, school committee members, and of course students – and find a better way forward to the schools that all of our children deserve.