Tuesday, October 13, 2009

These test-score jitters are a sign of high standards

September 21, 2009

MASSACHUSETTS maintains among the highest academic standards and toughest tests for students in the nation, even at the risk of looking bad on federal measures of “adequate yearly progress.’’ That’s the right course, even when the latest scores on the MCAS tests in math and English push more than half of the state’s schools out of compliance with federal expectations.

The federal No Child Left Behind law sets targets requiring every student to reach “proficiency’’ by 2014. States, which set their own proficiency standards, are expected to reach consistently higher points each year along that federal trajectory. It’s a lot easier for states with lower academic standards and easier tests to hit the annual mark. But that’s not the way of education reform in Massachusetts. State education commissioner Mitchell Chester wisely insists that he is “dead opposed’’ to making the MCAS test easier in order to look good on a federal report card. It’s that attitude that elevates Massachusetts students to the top of comparison charts on national and even international standardized tests.

Parents in the 937 elementary, middle and high schools cited for failure to make adequate yearly progress shouldn’t be overwrought. In some cases, the citation reflects a failing school. But usually not. In 244 schools from Marblehead to Northampton, for example, the overall student body improved on its MCAS scores. But one or more subgroups of students didn’t - those with special needs, for instance, or limited English skills. That’s a serious situation, to be sure, and federal education officials are right to demand accountability for hard-to-educate students. But placing such schools on a federal watch list doesn’t give parents the complete picture. The problems with the designation can also be seen at the nearly 600 schools that landed in federal hot water despite showing overall improvements on their MCAS English scores.

Chester says that only a few dozen schools require heavy intervention by the state. In those cases, he’ll need the help of the state Legislature, not the federal government, to give his department power to clear out ineffective administrators and teachers without regard to union contracts.

Parents should take a deep breath. Ten years ago, only 24 percent of the state’s 10th graders scored proficient or higher on the math MCAS exam. Today, 75 percent do. There’s no sense in losing sleep over each quiver in the federal government’s hypersensitive needle.

The public should also remember that 90 percent of the Class of 2010 already has met the required passing grade on the MCAS exams, a grade that would probably earn them proficiency ratings in many states. In a few years, these kids will be well along in their college careers and federal education officials might even have figured out a clearer system to measure student progress.

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