CPS deplores denial of diplomas based on Science MCAS

The report that almost 3,000 Massachusetts high school seniors will be denied diplomas based on Science MCAS scores reveals once again the deep flaws of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (BESE) high-stakes testing policies. These are students who have completed four years of high school and satisfied the requirements of their school districts. Many of them overcame significant obstacles such as learning disabilities, economic hardship, or learning the English language in addition to their academic subjects.

These students will have difficulty continuing their education and are likely to be derailed from productive futures, at great cost to themselves and our social fabric. Failure to earn a high school diploma means these young people will earn far less, have less stable families, and are more likely to land in prison. We can ill afford a public policy that puts thousands of Massachusetts students on a path to failure because of a few points on a single standardized test.

Massachusetts high school students come from a wide variety of home and school backgrounds. The facilities and resources for authentic science education vary greatly from community to community across the Commonwealth. Many of our schools remain underfunded and ill-equipped for science and engineering education.

The Board of Education’s fundamental assumption, that a paper and pencil test covering an arbitrary list of topics truly captures student progress, is deeply flawed. It is particularly flawed in the area of science, in which an understanding and an interest in the scientific methodology is more important than memorizing any single body of information.

When the BESE instituted the science MCAS requirement, it was against the recommendations of leading Massachusetts scientists and science educators, as well as the authoritative National Academies of Science recommendations that standardized test results should not be used for high stakes decisions such as graduation.

The pressure on teachers to get their students past this barrier requires test prep instruction. This drives creative teaching and instruction out of the classroom and replaces it with drill-and-kill in which students focus on lists of questions drawn from previous tests. Prominent national figures such as Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, have sounded an alarm about the way high-stakes tests affect science education. Albert said science tests often focus on recall of vocabulary, stressing “excruciatingly boring material,” failing to judge the capacity of students to think, and ultimately discouraging many of them from choosing a career in the field. These consequences are independent of the quality of the standardized tests and independent of whether students are able to pass the tests.

As is typically the case with standardized tests, we are asked to accept the reliability of the tests without evidence. Was there any assessment by a committee independent of the test vendors and DOE of the quality of the tests? Do we know that they are aligned with the state standards? Who set the cutoff scores and what were their criteria? Should we continue to ignore   the major critiques of the MCAS science exam, in particular its failure to encourage or support authentic inquiry-based learning and teaching.

We need to invest in more extensive science and technology education in our high schools: well-trained teachers, laboratory facilities, budgets for projects, field trips and science fairs. These would be a far better use of public resources than purchasing standardized tests and test services from private vendors.