Learning Curve

Learning Curve

By Ann O’Halloran

Ann O'Halloran

In my 32 years of teaching, the waves of change in education have often made me seasick. In recent years, it has been first the MCAS and then the federal No Child Left Behind law, wave after wave of high-stakes tests. By the mid-2000s it became clear to me that education policy was drifting off the shore of what was reasonable, leaving thousands of students stranded, without hope, branded as failures. Working with special needs students made me acutely aware of how our one-size-fits-all assessments were a terrible fit for too many. It seemed so strange that, just at the time when Massachusetts schools were working to include students with special needs, the state created a system that made it so difficult for those students to show their progress. I wondered: Who is paying attention here in Massachusetts ?

Since 1998 teachers like me have learned the inside scoop on MCAS by seeing its impact on the faces of our students: One of my students, Marsha, was nine. She looked down, shyly, as she said, “I’m not any good at math…my family got my test scores and they said I’m not good in math.” Jimmy clutched himself and in a panicky voice, said, “I have to go to the bathroom. Bobby had a screaming headache. Jill, an academic star, didn’t want to come to school. “It’s all about MCAS, now,” she said. Tom, frozen with anxiety, folded his arms across his chest and refused to write anything on his MCAS composition. Mike was all ready for the test. A student with ADHD, he was tested individually and could write his answers in the test booklet. He was on “overdrive” that MCAS day, quickly glancing at the passage to be read and checking off his answers. After ten minutes, he shouted, “I’m done! That was so easy!” Chuck was thrilled with his writing as he diverted from the topic of “What did you do on a Snow Day.” His story started with the snowstorm and he delightedly then wrote about an invasion of aliens. Sally was worried for me, her teacher, “Are you going to get fired if I don’t do good on the MCAS?” [Now that worry has come true for teachers getting pink slips in “chronically underperforming” schools!]

L to R: Jackie Dee King, Larry Ward, Lisa Guisbond, Jean McGuire, Rep. Frank Smizik at CPS Annual Meeting

Just this week, it was reported that almost 3,000 students risk being denied their high school diplomas because they failed the Science MCAS test, many of them by just a few points. Most of these students have special needs or are trying to master English as a second language or live in deep poverty. We failed them. Leading scientists and science teachers had recommended that standardized tests in science not be used for a graduation requirement. Who is listening here in Massachusetts?

Once there was a dream of true reform, embodied in the 1993 Education Reform Act. That legislation required an ongoing Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Within that acronym, MCAS, is buried the true goal – a truly comprehensive assessment of students, where they could demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. If we had pursued that goal, all our students could have revealed their learning, not by an arbitrary (and adjustable) cut-off score. Those with special learning needs could have demonstrated their own personal growth. Instead, an arbitrary testing system steals the future hopes of thousands of students. Since 2003, more than 19,000 have now failed to earn a diploma due to failing one of the graduation requirement tests. Without a diploma, the doors closed to them include apprentice programs to learn skilled trades, barber or hairdressing school, or enlisting in the military.

I realized by 2004 just how badly Massachusetts had strayed from the vision of the Education Reform Act in 1993. That was the year I asked at a meeting, “Is everything we do in our schools, now dictated by NCLB?” And the resounding “yes” just about knocked me off my seat. Shouldn’t we stop and take a serious look at what MCAS and NCLB hath wrought!

Using our “official name” –- the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — reminds us that this small corner of America is for everyone – particularly the youngest and most fragile ones among us.

We are meant to embrace all – the young children of the poor, critically in need of sound nutrition, ongoing health care and early educational intervention, the youngsters who live in distressed family conditions or homelessness, those with special health or learning needs, those struggling to learn a new language and way of life (just as our parents and grandparents did). We are meant to educate all – in this wonderful Commonwealth. We need to find a better way – perhaps even revisit the original vision of Education Reform back in the early 1990s.

“As a public school teacher, Citizens for Public Schools has become a life preserver, and this is why…”

— Ann O’Halloran

At CPS I have found a large and growing circle of thoughtful activists who focus on crucial issues in public education today. There is a constant flow of ideas through our listservs, our newsletter, The Backpack, and public forums featuring varied leaders in research and education. In October we sponsored a conference, Educating the Whole Student, with renowned educator Deborah Meier as the keynote speaker. At our annual meeting we honored Jackie Dee King, Larry Ward and Lisa Guisbond of CARE, Jean McGuire, Executive Director of METCO, Judge Luis Perez of the Worcester Juvenile Justice system and two legislators, Senator Patricia Jehlen and Representative Katherine Clark. CPS co-sponsored a conference at UMASS/Amherst with Pauline Lipman, professor of policy studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, as the keynoter.

While teachers like me become outraged at how MCAS affects our most fragile students, CITIZENS FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS has been paying attention, listening, and questioning MCAS and other education issues. CPS has been working for change.

Ann O’Halloran taught for 32 years in Boston, the Cambridge Friends School, Waltham and Newton, regular and special education, grades K – 8. In 2007 she was named Massachusetts History Teacher of the Year and one of five finalists for the national award. She has volunteered with Citizens for Public Schools on a regular basis since retiring from teaching in 2008. If you are an educator or parent interested in the MCAS issue, please feel free to contact her at ohalloran.ann@verizon.net.