homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
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interview: david driscoll

David Driscoll is commissioner of education in Massachusetts and a longtime supporter of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the state's customized -- and highly regarded -- test required for graduation from high school. In this interview with FRONTLINE, Driscoll offers his arguments in favor of the high-stakes exam, discusses steps Massachusetts is taking to address flaws in the test, and explains why he believes the MCAS is a fair and valid test. This interview was conducted by correspondent John Merrow on May 24, 2001.

... People say Massachusetts is a good example of folks trying to do it right. But somewhere back when, somebody said we need to shake things up. [Why?]

Well, it's a combination of things. We had the usual financial problem -- the support for kids was based on where you live. We call it "education by zip code." So we had the constitutional challenge of our funding formula. That was one.

Secondly, sweeping the country was, of course, education reform. ... And then thirdly, here in Massachusetts, the catalyst was the business community. They stepped forward and said, "Look, these kids are graduating without skills. And we've got to address this. ... We're not just going to address it with a quick fix. We want a comprehensive approach." ...

Tell me about the accountability part of it, what you call the [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System], MCAS.

... [K]ids were going to be tested along the way, given a state assessment in at least grades 4, 8 and 10, and they would have to pass the 10th-grade test in order to graduate from high school. So it has the elements of high stakes and high standards.

... Before I ask the question, "Where we are now, [in] spring 2001," can you give yourself a pat on the back?

Yes, I can give myself a pat on the back. I do think we've accomplished a great deal. We started the test in 1998, so this is the fourth giving of the test. We've made some changes. ... I think we made improvements. But the fundamental test ... had always been fundamentally sound, and remains so. We released the entire test so that everybody can see the test. ... And we think this is enormously important.

Why?

The parents know what's expected of kids. Teachers know. Schools know. There are no secrets. You can look at the questions. You can debate them. ... I think it takes the mystique out of it because, after all, we want people to know what our expectations are. ...

The first couple of times you gave [the MCAS test], the failure rates were very high -- 50 percent in math; a third in English. Talk to me about the failure rates.

... The numbers you just talked about were at the 10th-grade level and there's still that unknown -- which we will solve this year -- which is, how much did the kids blow it off because it didn't count? ... Two years ago, we had a 53 percent failure rate in mathematics. Last year, we had a 45 percent failure rate, and it didn't count. So that's an 8 percent improvement in 10th-grade mathematics, even though it didn't count.

I can honestly tell you ... as an educator for over 35 years ... we have got to stop allowing kids to graduate without skills. That is the issue.

So clearly the political issue is, with these enormous numbers [of failures], can you sustain this high-stakes test that's going to determine whether kids graduate from high school? And that's for someone else to decide, because our job is to get the standard right. I believe we have the standard right.

If you go to our website ... you can look at the student work at all levels at all performance levels and at all grades. And I challenge people to look at 10th-grade results. Look at the kids' work in mathematics and English and look at failing work, and tell me that's a high-school graduate.

... [W]e've been graduating thousands of kids without proper skills in mathematics and English. ... That's clear across the country.

So you're saying that this year it counts, and if the failure rate is 40 percent, those kids won't graduate?

That is correct. Well, they have four more opportunities to take it. Two chances in grade 11, and two chances in grade 12, for a total of five. But that's correct. If they don't pass, if they don't ... get to 220 or above, they will not graduate from high school, according to our law.

How comfortable are you with that 220? There is, after all, a standard error of measurement in tests. Is that a firm number, that 220?

Well, it's a firm number, because that's what [we] voted, although our new governor just recently requested that we look at an appeals and accommodations process, which we will. And one of the things she recommended was to look at a technical appeal for someone that was within one standard error measure. I believe, with the four retakes, that that will be mitigated without question. I mean, the standard of error goes the other way. You're going to get kids that score 220 that should have been at 216, I suppose. So that will all be mitigated with four retakes of the test, without question in my mind. ...

The law required wisely that this test be given at the 10th-grade level, and that's for two obvious reasons. One, there are two more years in which to pass. So you don't want to do it just at the 12th-grade level. ... Secondly, there's a natural growth and development of kids that isn't necessarily true when you're 44 or 45 years old. But it is true when you're 16. So if the kid is paying attention, they will improve.

So this kind of standard error measure that people talk about ... that can be overcome very easily by four retakes, by the fact they know exactly what's expected of them, and by the fact that at least at the basic level, you can drill away. We have programs online the kids can practice. So I don't see that standard of error measure as being a problem at all over the five givings of the test.

So if I take the test five times, and the first four times I get 210 ... and the fifth time I get a 220, I pass and I graduate? ... And you're comfortable with that, even though the four scores may be a truer measure?

Well, you've attained a 220 at some point. And that shows that you've met that basic level. It's just a basic level. ... Now, there's a whole series of things as to what the child is really like. You can get 800s on your college boards and have trouble finding your way home. So there's other issues here. But yes, I am comfortable that we have the standard right.

Basically, if a student cannot reach 220 -- and if you look at our tests, you'll recognize how basic that is -- then that child is going to be disadvantaged if we allow them to [graduate]. ... [There's] a recent study that shows 1.1 million workers in our work force here in Massachusetts do not have basic skills in English and mathematics; 677,000 of those 1.1 million [are] high-school graduates. ...

If they haven't met the 220, they'll have five opportunities. And beyond that, we have to have an appeals and accommodations process to see if there's something. Obviously with limited English-proficient kids, with disabled kids, there are some barriers there. There's barriers in kids' backgrounds and their family lives. These kids today face so many problems. All of that noise, as I call it, is difficult for kids to overcome. But we think this is a very accurate measure, particularly given four retakes. ...

I'd like to talk about another kid we've been spending some time with, a young woman, Madeline Valera, who scored 216. ... There's a standard error of measurement; it's a plus or minus six. So conceivably that 216 could be a 222 or it could be a 210. Talk to me a little bit about your comfort level with holding firm to that 216 for Madeline Valera? ...

The standard error of measure is absolutely a fact that any time you give a test ... then you worry about that standard error and what would have happened on another day. My answer to that continues to remain that we are giving four opportunities to retake the test at a time when kids are growing anyway in their intellectual ability. And that someone who gets a 216, I would feel very confident would be able to score a 220 easily within the next four retakes. If a student got stuck at 216, ... that's where we have to have an appeals and accommodations process, which we will have in place by 2003. We clearly have to look at these odd cases. I think they will only be a few.

There were about 3,000.

Well, there's 3,000 statistically. But over time, those 3,000 -- most of them -- will clearly get up over the bar, just because they're going to improve anyway. And with [four] retakes, clearly kids will gain. But we have to look at the odd case, and there will only be a few. ...

Suppose she takes it again and stays there -- doesn't quite make 220. Are you going to be comfortable denying her a high-school diploma, even though the standard error of measurement suggests that 216, 218, 219 could as easily be well into the 220s?

Let me try answering it this way: yes. You've asked it in three different ways. I am comfortable. ... [O]f the four retakes, two of them are what we call "focus retest." ... Those retests will only have the questions in and around the "needs improvement" level. ... We take out the very hard questions that differentiate between proficient and advanced. And we ask more questions around that level, which means, by the way, the youngster's going to have to get more right in order to get to the 220. But it's going to be, psychometrically, a much more accurate view of where that child is. ...

I am very comfortable that at that point, that youngster [who hasn't scored 220] does not have the skill level to become a high-school graduate. Of course, they can come back anytime and take the test. We're hoping that our community colleges will allow kids to matriculate there even though they haven't passed MCAS, and help them. ...

So I am very comfortable that we have a system that provides enough of a safety net. ... Some of our youngsters, unfortunately, have such major disabilities that they're not going to be able to reach that level. That's just a fact. But for other kids who are willing to meet us halfway, I'm very comfortable that our system will get them up over the bar. Absolutely. ...

Have you taken the test?

Yes.

How did you do?

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 don't spend a lot of time on the fourth-grade and eighth-grade [tests] going through, reading every last passage. I certainly get a feel for those. But at the 10th-grade level, I do go through it. I find it to be a very valid test. ... I have a math major; mathematics comes a little bit easier to me. But I find some of the questions in the English [portion] very challenging. And a few of the questions in mathematics [are] very challenging. In fact, we had a student this year find a mistake, which was terrific.

Let's talk about those mistakes. ...

[In one question], we called him John Madison when we know he's James Madison. There was a labeling of a chad; it should have said cities and dates or something, and it said something else and something else. ... Those are a couple of typographical errors. The other one I don't consider a mistake. I mean, it's technically a mistake.

You're talking about the pentagon?

Right. And by the way, we had trialed these question. So the kids had seen it before. ... And I have math people all over this state who look over the kids' shoulders and look at the test, which is fine. They didn't catch it.

This one student caught [an error] and he even knew the right answer. [The question] should have said "regular polygon" and then you would have known it couldn't make a pentagon. You can't make a pentagon a regular pentagon. ... [The student] found a very, very technical mistake on the test. I don't consider that a major problem at all. In fact, I think it's a good thing.

Will that question count?

No. ... Clearly, a youngster that got that question wrong, [which] prevented him from getting 220, we'll throw it out. My hope is it will count for those that got it right, and it won't count for those that got it wrong. So this kid did his classmates a real service. ...

Now his math chairman said, "Well, Pete Peterson is actually not a top math student." [He] raised the possibility that the top math students sort of are test-savvy, and they just zip through and they can eliminate the other three choices.

... When I took that question, I immediately saw a pentagon. ... I would suggest if you stopped anybody on the street and asked them what a pentagon looked like, they would describe what they know from Washington, D.C., as the Pentagon. They would not describe what this youngster would have drawn. ...

[M]y understanding is he recognized immediately that "pentagon" was probably the answer that the question meant to convey. And they forgot the word "regular." So he sees that immediately. I think he answered "pentagon." But then raised the question afterwards. Technically, this question is an error, and he's right.

No, that's not what happened. He stopped and asked the teacher to come look at it. But the teacher's not allowed to read the question. She, in fact, did read the question. She broke the law doing so.

Well, I don't know if she broke the law. ... I don't think it's break[ing] the law. In fact, I find it curious that we're spending the time on this. I think, to me, it's a strength of the test. It was a very good question that we had trialed. Forty percent of the kids, on average, got it right before, which meant it's a very good question for proficient and advanced kids. I give this youngster a great deal of credit. I certainly wouldn't penalize he or his teacher for asking the right question. ...

His math chairman at the high school raised an interesting question. Who's a better hire in the work force? The kid who can whiz through the test and doesn't stop to think about that? Or a young man like Pete Peterson, who's tenacious and stops and works it out?

... Clearly, in certain jobs, in certain ways you want kids with that kind of creativity or asking questions, not just going along but pushing the envelope. Perhaps it depends on what vocation you go into as to whether you want to push the envelope or not. But you know, all of us need both, I think, the ability to think traditionally and recognize the various logic, but also every now and then to question and look at things differently.

... But it is an interesting notion to think that maybe the test's format sort of rewards the kid who figured out how to eliminate quickly, and whether we're encouraging that as opposed to the tenacious kid who's going to stop and say, "Wait a minute, this isn't right."

Yes, I think the overall record would belie that. The typical test -- SATs and standardized test[s], norm-referenced tests -- do clearly advantage those that have test-taking ability. In fact, there are courses for it, as you know. There are courses for MCAS. But I'm not sure that they're doing anyone a great service, because our test is that much more valid because the kids have to show their work. So there are times with open-ended questions and open response and, of course, the long composition and so forth, that the student really has to show what they know. ... [This error happened to occur in] a multiple-choice question.

I think almost every year, SATs and others find questions like this kind of thing. Again, I think it's a strength. I liked it. I think it's a good debate. And it was a great credit to that child. I wouldn't make huge conclusions from it. ...

[R]ecently we've learned about pretty significant errors made by test companies. We had one here, the president [of the company] went to apologize to the kids for losing the tests -- 45,000 kids in Minnesota, [their] scores were wrong. New York City, 9,000 kids were sent to summer school erroneously and scores were wrong. The test companies may not have the capacity to do all that's being asked. Given the errors here in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, other places, are you comfortable with the MCAS being high stakes?

Well, I am. You were talking about the errors here in Massachusetts. They haven't been anything that would have interfered with the child graduating from high school. They misplaced some booklets for some kids in ... the fourth-grade level. And we've already talked about the math question, which I think, first of all, we'll make a correction for it. ...

If we were to face [those] major issues ... then we have to look at that situation. And we're going to have to make adjustments. We're certainly not going to allow a youngster to have a system where a child is denied a diploma based on an error of the test company. I mean, that's our job. That's why we have a very clear contract with financial penalties if they're not timely and accurate. ...

We've given the test three times now. And now it's our fourth. I know of no situation where a 10th grader was disadvantaged because of the test and the scoring of the test or the handling of the test. ...

The question of whether there is some sort of impact if you fail it once, fail it again. What's the burden there?

I think the whole program is based on a sense of truth and reality. ... And I don't think that's a bad thing. It's a lot better than kidding the kid along and saying, "By the way, you're fine." And you go talk to those kids when they're 24, 25, 26 years old. They're in the work force. They have a high-school diploma. It doesn't do them any good. They don't have the skills. They're working in businesses where the jobs are available these days. And yet, they're not able to take advantage of them.

So I think, despite the fact that it may be hard for them to deal with the reality, it may be somewhat demoralizing, and, of course, [there's the] worry that they'll even drop out in some cases. I think schools have to come to the forefront here, because they know the kids individually. And they have to encourage kids. ...

There should be an attitude that this is the right thing for them, because we have an obligation to see to it they can attain certain skills before we allow them to be called high-school graduates. ...

Madeline Valera says, "This test is not testing what I'm good at. I'm artistic. I have these talents, and it doesn't recognize that."

This is not a test of artistic ability -- absolutely. It's a test of basic skills in mathematics and English. And if you look at the correlation between what adults, generally speaking, can attain in the workplace, and their education level and the skill level, there's a correlation. There's always the odd person who drops out of high school and is a millionaire, but those are few and far between. ... There such a correlation, it's almost scary. ...

And so we're not trying to test someone's artistic ability, nor are we saying someone who passes our test meets the graduation [requirements]. We call it a "competency determination." That's what the law calls it. We're not claiming anymore than that child has a basic competency determination. They could have a whole series of talents otherwise. ...

... MCAS bases the graduation decision on tests [in] just math and English. Is that enough information? Is it a wide enough view of a student? Are these the right things to test for? Kids say attitudes, interpersonal skills, determination, creativity, expressiveness are much more important factors in how people fare once they leave school.

... I agree with the students in that regard. We've never claimed [to be doing] anything else but establishing a basic level of skill, because kids were graduating without that basic level of skill. And that's all we're testing. In fact, here in Massachusetts, the law calls for us to test in mathematics, English, history, science and foreign language, eventually. But the Board of Education felt that we would start with just this basic level in mathematics and English. ...

Now, we would hope there's a whole series of requirements beyond that, and there are at the high-school level. They usually require them to take art and music courses or physical education and a whole series of other things. So I would agree with the students. We're not trying to say, "You've passed English and math at the 220 level, now you're all set. You have everything you need." What we're saying is, "At least we're now assured that you at least have the basic skills," which we haven't been doing. And we refuse -- or I refuse -- to stand by and watch kids given a false diploma, which is what's been happening. ...

Do you envision ... having the test in history count as a requirement for graduation and so on? Foreign language?

... [F]rom a pragmatic perspective, the board did the right thing by starting with mathematics and English. I see history and science absolutely being added. ...

So, far from backing off, you're saying we're going to broaden the standards? Is that what you're saying?

Yes. ... Eventually, at least, this was the intent expressed by the board at the time. That 220 is considered to be a minimum. And there may be the day -- now I think it'll be several years from now -- when 220, in fact, gets raised.

... [Y]ou've talked about multiple opportunities [to pass the test]. There are people who say it's not multiple opportunities, it's multiple measures; [that] we need more ways of looking at what a kid knows, not just more opportunities to take the same test.

Absolutely. And I think that's the fundamental issue that people look at. And I look at it just that differently. When people say, "What do you do about kids that are failing? You just have this one test." And I said, "Well, I'm not sure what we're going to do, but the one thing we're not going to do is allow them to graduate without the proper skills."

So it's your orientation. Sure, there has to be multiple measures, and sure, there has to be a lot more to life than just this the one test. But I, again, would say to you that it's about truth and reality. The kids who can't pass math and English at a 220 level, it's a basic standard. ... Kids who can't do that are being disadvantaged by allowing them to go forward. Kids who have failed will, in my judgment, be failures in a whole series of other areas. In fact, that's why we have an appeals and accommodations [process]. ...

So you're comfortable saying this test, which is largely multiple choice, is a valid measure across the board?

It's a valid measure in what we're talking about -- ... the minimum skill level in mathematics and English needed for a kid to be called a high-school graduate. ...

The protesters who say, "Commissioner Driscoll, we want multiple measures. ... We want you to create other ways that I could prove to you that I meet the minimum standard." You're saying, "No way."

I don't say "No way." ... There are likely to be a handful of kids who may not follow the usual pattern for whatever reason. I can understand that. ... I say we can take care of those few cases through an appeals and accommodations process involving local educators who know these kids. And say, "Yes, this is a youngster who's tried hard, who has skill level." We may even find ways of being able to assess that skill level in other ways. I'm not closing out the idea to that.

But I think that misses the point because, by and large, in most cases, in the tremendous majority of the cases, these kids who cannot pass MCAS have a deficiency in skill level in English and mathematics that has to be addressed.

... The commercial test companies specifically say, "Don't use this instrument for high-stakes decisions." Yet states do. That seems contradictory.

Well, again, I'm not sure that I want to worry about what they think. I understand the theory, which is that you need a lot of data points. I understand that. But I can honestly tell you sitting here as an educator for over 35 years ... we have got to stop allowing kids to graduate without skills. That is the issue.

But nobody's disagreeing with that.

Yes, they are disagreeing with that; in their own way, they are. They emotionally want kids to be able to get a high-school diploma even if they can't demonstrate that skill. And I think that's wrong.

But the test makers say, "Don't use these tests for high-stake decisions." Yet states do it everywhere.

I believe, again, that we've worked hard to develop a test that is valid and reliable as it relates, particularly, to the basic skill levels of English and mathematics. ...

So the test makers are wrong when they warn you not to do it?

Well, they're being unfair. I haven't talked to them, by the way. Everybody tells me they say this. I would like to say to the [test makers], ... first of all, that we do give four retakes; two of them focused retakes, which is very important. Secondly, we release the entire test [to the public]. We're very clear on what it is we're about. We give item analysis. So a teacher, or a parent, or a kid themselves, can sit down and see not only what questions they got wrong, but which option they chose as opposed to the right answer. So there's a wealth of information to allow the youngster to improve.

Beyond that, we're going to establish an appeals and accommodations process. A technical appeals process for someone who scores close, like a 216. And an accommodations process that's going to ... establish practitioners in the various geographic areas who can bring appeals forward and say, "Look, this doesn't compute."

So the test makers, when they issue this warning, they're being disingenuous? Or you're just saying you don't care what [they] say?

... I don't think they recognize our full program. ... [They don't understand] the thought process that goes into our entire testing program. ...

The pejorative expression "teaching to the test," I suspect, is not a pejorative for you.

... [S]ome people are interpreting "[teaching] to the test" as pushing everything aside and just drilling on mathematics and English and whatever. That's going to turn kids off. The one thing we need to do in public education is have a system of education that's engaging.

And so I say to people, if they do well in art and music, they'll do well in MCAS. The key is to engage them and have a full, comprehensive program. So I say now, "No, don't teach to the test. Teach children, or have children learn in an engaging way." That's what's this is all about. They want to be engaged. They can be bored very easily. ...

The superintendent in Mesa, Ariz., told me that if you go to his system for 13 years, K-12, you'll spend the equivalent of a year and a half either taking these tests or getting ready to take these tests. Do we spend too much time testing kids?

Probably. And I think over time of course, with [President George W. Bush's proposed education bill], we'll be testing more. ... I think it will ebb and flow. ... I do think we're a little bit test-conscious right now -- too much so. But on the other hand, it's because of the need to make sure the kids are learning something. And we can't just trust the locals anymore, or trust the schools. We just can't.

So I hope it will start to come back to some kind of moderation. Once we've driven the system to the point where kids are attaining these skills in fairly large numbers, we've got a long way to go. The reading rates, literacy rates across the country aren't where they [should be]. Mathematics isn't where it should be. And this is, after all, the standards-based approach. We're seeing some movement at the fourth-grade level, but we have a long way to go, as well. And the gap between the poor kids and black and Hispanic kids and white advantaged kids is still way too big. ...

[E]ven our greatest critics will say that good some good has come from MCAS. Kids are studying harder, there's more sense of purpose, discipline's better. There's writing across the state like there's never been before.

What do you worry about? What keeps you up at night?

Nothing keeps me up at night, thankfully. I have a clear conscience. But I think what clearly concerns me is the emotion and anxiety that surrounds this test. And I'm someone who spent a whole career in education and wants to find ways to have kids improve in a kind of logical, nurturing kind of nature. ...

This situation -- and I guess it's unavoidable -- has caused such emotion, that it tends almost to be divisive. I wish I could find a way that we could all recognize that we're not out to hurt you; we're out to correct something that, for too long, has gone on in our society. And for me, personally, having students be lied to in a sense, by giving them a false diploma, is a much greater burden for me to carry than in saying, "Look, we've got a test that's truthful, that's going to tell the reality and that's the right thing for kids." ...

[P]eople have to recognize [that] it's always good to have dialogue. It's always good. I think we can improve this test. I'm looking forward to the appeals process, the accommodations process. But to somehow suggest we're villains or we're misguided. I mean, we're trying to correct a historic wrong that, in this commonwealth, means that 667,000 young people have been given a false diploma. That's got to stop. ...

I sleep well at night, because I'm focused on what I think is the right thing for kids.

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