What’s New in Bad Ideas from MA DESE? 

With confidence in standardized tests at a low ebb, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) proposes paying kids to care about MCAS. On Friday, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will consider a Student Achievement Award Program, including a $25 gift certificate for high MCAS scores. This proposal has us in the field shaking our collective heads, wondering what incentive might encourage those who dreamed this up to consider the perspective of actual high-needs students. A $26 gift certificate, perhaps? 

Of the many obstacles to academic success faced by students with disabilities, English Learners, Black and Latinx students, and economically disadvantaged students, the lack of a $25 gift certificate is not on the list. In the context of the unprecedented trauma and dislocation many students have experienced and continue to experience during the pandemic, this proposal is tone deaf.

Tim Wise, a writer and parent of three Cambridge Public School graduates, asks how class dynamics will be affected when one high-scoring kid doesn’t get the recognition and cash while her classmate does because they are a SWD, economically disadvantaged, or an English learner. “Seems like a great way to make both of them feel bad, about themselves, each other, and the inane testing system,” he said. “Mission accomplished!” 

But maybe this won’t be a big problem because so few students will qualify for the award. Based on results from the spring 2021 MCAS administration, in Lawrence, for grades 3-8 math, a total of zero out of 5,778 high-need students would qualify. Zero! What does that say to these 5,778 students? 

A parent of students with special needs asks about the students who take the MCAS Alt? Are they not worthy? “This seems more like a feel-good gesture for the gift givers, not the recipients.”

Before floating this idea, it would be instructive to have conversations with some high-need students, their parents, their teachers, paraprofessionals and specialists. They could point out the myriad of real obstacles to their success and what the state could do to remove them. And while they’re at it, the commissioner should read the research on student pay for performance; he’ll find the idea has been a complete failure.