How school testing affects Mather Elementary

At first glance, Maureen McCann's classroom looks like a cauldron of creativity.

Homemade posters cover the walls and papier mâché globes hang from every fluorescent light fixture. On this day, she even lets her kids have a pizza party and watch "Tuck Everlasting" - a story they had studied in class.

But ask Ms. McCann, and she'll tell you that the picture is deceiving. It used to be that such culminating activities - "the fun stuff that brings it all together" - were relatively commonplace. Now, a day like this is an anomaly.

Since Boston's Mather Elementary changed its curriculum to prepare its students for Massachusetts' standardized test, she simply doesn't have time.

"You need to stop and catch your breath sometimes," she says, "and [the test] has taken that away."

Her story holds increasing relevance for every schoolchild and parent nationwide. Congress is now poised to require testing for public-school students in Grades 3 through 8 - a key provision of the most sweeping federal education reforms in 40 years. It's a change that, as McCann's classroom shows, can revamp entire curriculums, altering what and how children learn.

While teacher prerogative and creativity, enshrined in the 1960s, are likely to persist in classrooms across the US, the testing requirement represents a fundamental shift in America's educational course. The new legislation, expected to clear both houses of Congress this week, is a sign of the new conviction that a more businesslike, results-oriented ethic is needed to lift failing schools.

"There's always a cyclical element," says E.D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "In the old system, what was at stake was individual achievement, but that approach has had disastrous effects on equity."

A mixed response

Massachusetts first began its Comprehensive Assessment System exams in math, science, and English in 1998. In many suburban districts of Massachusetts, this new direction has been met with derision, as parents and teachers call the tests superficial and ineffective. In urban and rural areas, however, more educators have been open to the idea.

As a result, the changes in what is taught can vary hugely - from stolid refusal to "teach to the test" to complete overhauls in the curriculum - and those extremes are nowhere more apparent than in the suburban Wellesley Middle School and Mather Elementary here in Boston.

Even from the outside, the schools are a study in contrasts. Set along a quiet side street, Wellesley Middle School almost gives the impression of a college campus in miniature, front quad and all. Mather, meanwhile, rises from its black asphalt seat in a three-story block of red brick. Sneakers squeak impatiently on linoleum floors, and light fixtures in principal Kim Marshall's office rattle as children play in the gym overhead.

Yet when Mr. Marshall looks at students both here and across the state, he sees the same need: a better, more unified curriculum. Massachusetts' standardized test, called the MCAS, is a step toward that goal, he says, and has already helped his students.

"The target that MCAS gave us was much harder than we had before," says Marshall, whose circular glasses and wavy hair give his appearance the slightest hint of a trimmer Steve Forbes. "We looked at the test and said, 'This is much more than we're getting out of our kids.' "

So the school changed its entire curriculum - from kindergarten through fifth grade - to match MCAS expectations. This might force teachers to give up cherished subjects, Marshall acknowledges, but it doesn't have to make instruction a colorless exercise of memorizing dates.

"I draw a distinction between the 'what' and the 'how to,' " he explains. "The 'what' needs to be fixed, but the 'how to' is where creativity comes in."

As evidenced by McCann's classroom, creativity still has a place, even in the more frenetic MCAS world. In addition to all the artwork, children stand up and read aloud small essays they wrote about how they felt taking the standardized test at the end of their fourth-grade year. Most are hopeful, some even triumphant.

There are many things McCann likes about the test - such as the idea that kids all over the state will be learning the same material. At the same time, she worries that the pace is too quick for some students. "MCAS has forced me to teach things before they're ready," she says, "and if you need to spend extra time on a subject, you can't."

In Wellesley, the critics are harsher, and supporters are almost nonexistent. Most succinctly, principal John D'Auria quips, "It's horrendous."

Outside his office, with its wide window overlooking the front quad and books tilted askew in their shelves, people seemingly line up to light into MCAS. It's not the principle of the test, all agree, it's the test itself.

Are the tests flawed?

For one, tests both here and in other states have been besieged by claims of inaccuracy. Some reports have shown that students have been denied graduation because of tabulation errors, and Bill Atherton, head of the science department here, says he saw several errors on last year's science test.

There's also an acute sense among parents and teachers that the MCAS simply isn't a good test. Schoolwide, there has been no effort to match the curriculum with the MCAS. Mr. Atherton says his classes are, by coincidence, only about 60 percent aligned with the MCAS, yet his students score well on the tests. Students here haven't done as well in social studies, but that doesn't seem to have anyone worried. "We don't think it's an accurate measure of what kids know on history," says teacher Adam Blumer.

When his students study the Civil War, for instance, he encourages them to work with primary documents to see how each side justified the conflict. Little of that sort of critical thinking is tested on MCAS, Mr. Blumer says.

Those are all legitimate complaints, test supporters agree, and few suggest that the test is a finished product. But they insist that states need to make sure that all kids have mastered the basics by the time they graduate, and for now, testing seems like the best means to that end.

As for the Massachusetts test results themselves? So far test scores have improved, with 73 percent of the state's sophomores passing both the math and English tests in 2001 - a 22 percent increase over last year.

"Anything new, it takes years to get the bugs out, but a statewide test is a good idea," says Laurie Davis, mother of a sudent at Mather. "In the past, plenty of kids were leaving the system without being able to read and write."

What the reform bill does

By Gail Russell Chaddock

States must test all students in Grades 3 through 8 annually in reading and math - and publish the test results. A sample of students in the fourth and eighth grades will also be required to take the National Assessment of Educational Progress, to demonstrate that states are making gains in educational achievement.

At schools where students consistently fail the tests, parents can get federal funds to pay for additional educational services, including private tutoring, after-school programs, or transportation to another public school.

A pilot program will test whether giving some states and school districts more flexibility in how they use federal dollars will improve student achievement.

Students whose English is poor have three years to learn the language, but schools can allow some students to study in their native tongues for longer periods.

States must have a plan to ensure that all teachers are "highly qualified" by the end of the 2005-2006 school year.

Federal money targeted to schools on the basis of poverty rates will rise from $18.8 billion to $22.6 billion a year. The new funds are to be plowed into helping schools reach the performance targets of the new tests.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.