Testing Our Schools
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JOHN MERROW: In Massachusetts, they tried to do testing right from the very start. But this is not as easy as it sounds.
SPOKESPERSON: You don’t want a kid to get nailed by a question. The kid… again, it’s a kid… it’s a question that kid could have a lot of knowledge and now get it wrong because he didn’t know that name. That’s the kind of question I don’t think is a good idea.
JOHN MERROW: Massachusetts calls its test MCAS. It begins here, with committees of teachers choosing the questions for the state test from lists supplied by test writers. This is the part of testing that’s rarely seen.
SPOKESPERSON: All right, we know we need to have ten questions that deal with Africa, so let us look from 100 of them, and we’ll pick the ten.
SPOKESMAN: If we say this and we go down this line where we say, "how many questions are you going to have on Africa? How many questions are you going to have on Asia? How many questions are you going to have on Europe? How many questions are you going to have on this, then…"
SPOKESPERSON: No, it’s not "how many questions on the test?" This is just a… we want a bunch of questions to look at.
SPOKESMAN: Intellectually I don’t think that’s necessary.
SPOKESMAN: Well, it is, given the fact that today and yesterday, the questions that we have looked at, we have one on Japan, we have one on Africa, and everything else is European. I’m sorry. I mean, by not doing this, okay, we’re not focusing in on other areas that we are telling teachers they need to teach.
SUE SZACHOWICZ, Brockton High School: We were actually dissatisfied, as a group, with the items we were seeing. So actually, you saw us arguing a bit about things to the testing company "You need to give us more questions that we can look at not one at time, but in fact, more questions around a theme or an area of the world or a big idea."
SPOKESMAN: Like the Islamic influence on Africa, the development of Timbuktu.
SPOKESMAN: But you know what?
SPOKESMAN: I mean, there’s a…
SPOKESMAN: You don’t want 100 questions on Africa if they’re all Trivial Pursuit questions.
SPOKESMAN: Right, that’s right.
SPOKESMAN: If I can only pick one item, please let’s make sure it’s the best item we can have.
SPOKESPERSON: Let’s draw up a chart.
SPOKESPERSON: Yeah, that would be very helpful.
JOHN MERROW: Dissatisfied with the questions, these teachers sent the test writers back to work. Committees like this screen hundreds of questions, weeding out the ones that are vague or poorly worded, or that do not relate to what’s taught in schools.
BRENDAN DILLON, Westwood High School: Do they have to be directly related? There were a couple that we looked at, and again, we went back and went through the standards and frameworks, and said, "This is not in here specifically; we cannot ask that question; it wouldn’t be fair to the teachers or students." And we have eliminated those questions.
JOHN MERROW: Massachusetts has not cut corners on testing. It develops its own tests, built to measure what’s taught in school, and it’s not all multiple choice.
JEFF NELLHAUS: One of the… I think one of the good features of our test, one of the reasons we believe it is a good test, is because it requires students to do a fairly significant amount of writing.
JOHN MERROW: Jeff Nellhaus is Massachusetts’ director of testing.
JEFF NELLHAUS: We have some multiple choice questions or things that can be tested very well and efficiently with multiple choice questions. But what we call the open response or constructed response questions require students to write out an answer. We have one shot here to get at the very central things we want to assess, and we don’t want to assess things that are trivial or arcane.
JOHN MERROW: And the scores are going to count heavily for students, not just for schools. If students here cannot pass the tests, they will not graduate from high school. In nearly half the states around the country, those will be the new rules.
DAVID DRISCOLL: The catalyst was the business community. They stepped forward and said, "look, these kids are graduating without skills." And we refuse… or I refuse to stand by and watch kids given a false diploma, which is what’s been happening.
JOHN MERROW: David Driscoll is Massachusetts’ commissioner of education. He’s been a supporter of the graduation test since the idea emerged in the early 1990s.
JOHN MERROW: Have you taken the test?
DAVID DRISCOLL: Yes.
JOHN MERROW: How’d you do?
DAVID DRISCOLL: Well, I didn’t score myself, but I would have passed. I literally take it simply because I like the experience of going through it. I find it to be a very valid test.
JOHN MERROW: But it’s the high- stakes graduation requirement that makes MCAS so controversial.
DEMONSTRATOR: Rally against the MCAS! Put your hands up!
DEMONSTRATORS: Rally against the MCAS! Put your hands up!
JOHN MERROW: And the question at the center of the controversy is this: Should one test determine the outcome of 12 years of schooling– decide who gets a diploma and who gets nothing?
GEORGE MADAUS: It’s bad practice. We don’t need tests… we don’t need these tests to tell us who’s having a hard time and who’s in trouble in school. We know… we basically know the answer to that. You can ask any classroom teacher, and they can tell you to a fair-thee-well who the kids are that are having trouble in math, reading– you name the subject.
JOHN MERROW: George Madaus is a testing expert at Boston College.
GEORGE MADAUS: We know that certain populations are poorly served– that there are schools that aren’t doing a good job for kids. We know that. But now we’ve added this… this test as a quasi-documentary of those problems that we knew… we’ve known for years exist. And you’re not going to test your way out of those problems.
DAVID DRISCOLL: We’re trying to correct a wrong, a historic wrong that, in this commonwealth, means that 667,000 young people have been given a false diploma. That’s got to stop.
JIM LEHRER: A reminder that you can see John Merrow’s complete "Frontline" report on most PBS stations later this evening. Check your local listings for the time.