MCAS is the Massachusetts state assessment. It really does fit this criterion
of being an assessment that was very specifically developed to measure progress
against the Massachusetts state standards.
Is it a multiple-choice test?
It has some multiple-choice elements in it, but it also has some constructed
response and more open kinds of responses. ...
So you write essays? You solve problems?
Yes. You write essays. ... You solve problems. And you have, as I say, some
multiple-choice items as well. It is also an untimed test; that is, even though
there's kind of a designated period for kids who take the test, it's also
possible for kids who need more time to have more time on the test.
Another feature of the Massachusetts test -- which is quite unusual, only a few
states do it -- is that the Massachusetts test each year is released to the
public. All of the items that count for kids are publicly released, so that
parents and teachers and the general public can see what was on the test. ...
The theory was, end the mystery, take away the notion that maybe there's some
deep, dark secret here.
So that means you develop a new test every year?
Right. You have to develop a new test every year. It's expensive, but the
Massachusetts policymakers decided that the tradeoff, in terms of public
understanding and public confidence, was worth it. The other thing that
Massachusetts does as part of its MCAS strategy is on the state website,
[it releases] examples of student answers, student work products at various
performance levels. So if you want to know what constitutes passing work, what
constitutes proficient work, and what work is not quite at the level that the
state is seeking, you can see examples of work with commentary. ...
As you probably know, ... MCAS is controversial in Massachusetts. Everybody has
an opinion about it. But the nice thing about this more public, transparent
process is that folks like me -- who think that the MCAS is a good test and
it's worth teaching to -- can say to people, "Go take a look at it. See for
yourself. Take a look at student work, and answer the question: Would you be
satisfied granting a high school diploma to a student whose performance is
below the cut point?"...
Suppose it becomes apparent that 50 percent of the kids are not going to be
able to pass this high-stakes test, whether it's Massachusetts' test or some
other state's. What will happen politically?
I think [a] 50 percent failure rate [is] clearly not sustainable, politically.
Something will have to give. ... [I]t's hard to generalize about these issues
across states. The Massachusetts test is first given to kids in the 10th grade,
and they have four additional opportunities to take the test and, obviously,
two more years of instruction ... [under] current policy, before a student
would be denied a diploma. ...
Let's say you're governor of Massachusetts and you're looking
at a 50 percent failure rate on this high-stakes graduation test. What do you
There's a lot you need to do between the time you get the early signal that you
might be looking at rates like that, and making any final determination. ...
Would you lower the bar?
I would not lower the bar. Again, this assumes that one has gone through a
public process of trying to define what it is that we think is reasonable for
kids to be able to do, what kind of work -- especially in reading and writing
and math -- is reasonable to expect kids to be able to [do] in order to earn a
I would stick to the bar. I would explore transition kind of strategies, I
would make sure that we had provisions for waivers of various kinds or appeals
processes, so that students could make a credible case that they actually
are able to meet the standard, even if they can't show it on a test. I think there are ways to be able to get at that ... unless one concludes that
the standard is an inappropriate standard. ...
Unlike many other states, Massachusetts did not adopt an incremental strategy in setting its standards or in developing its test. That is, it didn't say, "Here's where our students
currently are. Let's raise the bar a little bit and proceed incrementally, step
by step." Texas was an example of a state that has done that and in political terms, that strategy has really worked very well for Texas. They have not had to
face anything like these kind of potentially catastrophic failure rates.
They've built confidence in among the teaching professional and among the
public that, in fact, their schools can get better. They have reduced racial
disparities in performance. So that strategy, in that context, has worked.
Massachusetts adopted a different strategy, perhaps a higher-risk one. But its
notion was, "Let's really develop a set of ambitious standards and assessments
that reflect where we want our students ultimately to be. And then let's really
push very hard to do whatever it takes to try to get virtually all kids over
I think what Massachusetts policymakers and educators would say now is,
"Obviously, we know we've got a problem." But in Massachusetts, the heavy focus
right now is on additional intervention, support, remediation.
More help. For the class of 2003, "There's still time" is the theory. We will
get shortly the results from last spring's test. There is another, more focused
retest opportunity for kids in the middle of this year. The state has committed
$80 million in special remediation and support dollars for kids who are at risk
of not being able to get over the bar. And there's a pretty intensive effort
focused on trying to design this extra help and support.
So Massachusetts is not backing off?
Massachusetts is not, at this point, backing off. Now ... if Massachusetts gets
to early spring of 2003 and is still looking at failure rates that are close to
the current level of failure rates, obviously I think people will pause and
say, "Hmm, maybe we need to look at some other alternatives."
But the urban superintendents in particular, led by Tom Payzant, the Boston
superintendent, have said, "Do not back off. Do not pull the rug out from under
our efforts to really get our systems focused on trying to help all kids get
over this bar. If there has to be a set of policy modifications, let's do that
after we've got more evidence in, after we've had more opportunity to see the
remediation and extra help kick in."
... [W]hen California gave the SAT-9, it was using it to evaluate schools
... and then teachers, and gave out money. And we have all kinds of wonderful
stories of kids who just didn't give a damn. They just blew off the test.
Yes. I think this is a really tough problem. ... That's less of an issue for younger kids. But by the time you get into middle school and particularly into high school, kids are smart enough to know
whether or not doing well on this test is going to have any consequence for
If you have an accountability system in which there are big stakes for the
adults, but no stakes for kids, that's not fair to the adults. I worry actually
more about those states that have attached consequences for kids, but no
consequences for the adults, if you follow me. Massachusetts, I would have to
say, is so far lagging a bit behind in the development of an accountability
system for schools, as distinct from an accountability system that focuses on
kids. So the issue here is, how do you get the balance right? ...
My own bias here is that accountability for kids ought to be one of the last
pieces of the puzzle that kicks in. In my view, we need to be pretty confident
that we have provided kids with an aligned curriculum; that is, a curriculum
that's aligned with the standards and with the tests; that kids have access to
extra help as they are having in Massachusetts; that parents have been given
early notification, so they can use their own resources to make sure that their
kids are getting extra help and support. And that there's really been adequate
professional development for teachers, so that we can be reasonably confident
that teachers have the knowledge and skill to be able to teach to these
If the kids don't make it in large numbers, what do we do about the adults?
Do we say, "You're out of here"?
For me, this shouldn't be about blame and punishment. The goal here is to try
to not only equip our teachers with the knowledge and the skills ... but to
really try to take every step we can to ensure that kids are given the support
they need. Now, if schools persistently fail to educate their kids after
additional help has been offered, then I think that ultimately there do need to
be sanctions for the adults in the system. But again, that's a last step for me
-- not an early step. ...
Standards and accountability is a kind of a business model. "Here's what
you're supposed to be, and we'll measure it." ...
I would say this has less to do with business, per se, and more to do with a
set of principles about organizations and how an organization will change.
[Business leaders] have been among the strongest advocates for the notion of,
first, at least being clear about what the purpose of the enterprise is -- and
that's really what the standards represent. Second, committing to measurement.
And third, thinking harder than educators are accustomed to about incentives
and rewards and sanctions.
Obviously, I work for an organization that has strong business leadership, as
well as strong public sector leadership from governors, but ... the business
advocacy has been extremely important for this movement.
I've heard some people say, "Well, educators don't quite get business. And
so their notion of a bottom line is maybe a little bit simplistic." ...
Admittedly, the bottom line in education is more complicated than it is in many
businesses. And there are limits to this business analogy. Most of the
corporate folks that I've worked with, ... who take the time to actually learn
about schools and go visit schools, pretty quickly develop an appreciation for
the fact that these private sector principles cannot automatically and easily
be applied to the public sector. They know that the public sector folks operate
under a somewhat different set of constraints, and how difficult it is to
actually make change. But what they bring is a sense of urgency and also
confidence that, in fact, organizational change is possible. ...
The business people I've talked with do get it. I mean, they understand it's
a complicated enterprise. I've just been intrigued by hearing superintendents
using the language of business. ...
Yes, I get put off by some of that myself, I have to confess, and I do think
one of the not-so-healthy consequences ... is it sometimes tends to devalue the
other purposes of education. And again, most of the business people I talk with
are very clear that the purpose of American schools is not simply to produce
the next generation of workers, but to produce thoughtful, reflective citizens,
and people who can lead sort of productive personal lives, as well as be
And I do think that sometimes superintendents ... take this business rhetoric
and they sound as if they think that the only thing that they're doing is
producing people to take part in economic life, if you will. ... I do think
it's overly reductionist, in terms of the purposes of education.
Let me get your reaction to the to the Bush proposal for testing all kids
grades 3-8 in math and reading. Is that a good thing?
It has clearly worked for Texas. This is a big, varied country and I'm a little
cautious about wanting to take a model that has worked in one place, and think
it can automatically produce the same kinds of results elsewhere. [My] cautions
have a lot to do with my anxieties about the quality of tests and the way in
which tests will be used.
If we're not careful, the states may take the sort of easy way out, and go to
the least expensive, off-the-shelf tests to fill in the gaps in the current
testing programs. As you probably know, most states are not currently testing
every grade in reading and mathematics, grades 3-8. So a lot of states are
going to be in the business of having to develop or purchase tests to fill in
the gaps, if this legislation passes in its current form. ...
So one concern really has to do with making sure that there aren't
disincentives to really invest in quality tests that really are aligned with
Are tests driving the system?
In some places, tests have taken on an undue part of the load here, if you
will. This is supposed to be a movement about ... "standards-based" reform, and
in some places, unfortunately, it's becoming "test-based" reform, or
[We're] trying to help people get back to the centrality of the standards
themselves, that is, asking some pretty tough questions: Do we have the
standards right? Are they clear? Are they measurable? Are they reasonably
economical? Are the standards focused only on what really are the most
essential things that kids need to know? ...
In some places, what we've seen is people sort of moving right past the
standards, and simply focusing on the tests themselves. And there you do
get some distortions in the system. If you've got high-quality tests, tests
that in some measure one could describe as worth teaching to, then I worry less
about the role that tests have played. What I mean is, if you've got tests that
can't be narrowly crammed for, and that don't drive down instruction to a kind
of rote drill-and-kill kind of strategy, then ... I'm more relaxed about the
fact that tests have become more central.
I should say, no education program should be focused solely on preparing kids
for tests. Even the best tests are not worth teaching to exclusively. And the
schools that I have been in a variety of states -- some with high-quality tests,
some with not-so-high-quality tests, some with high stakes, some with no
stakes -- ... the common denominator in good schools is that, yes, people are
mindful of the tests. They know there are tests out there, but that's not what
they're focused on. They're focused on high-quality instruction for all kids,
based on a sort of rich, challenging curriculum, ideally aligned with
[On] the tests that are used, [the] questions are, by and large, multiple
Increasingly, states have at least some "open response" kinds of items and ...
more and more tests are testing writing. You test writing, not by multiple
choice, but by having kids write.
And that's a good thing, moving away from multiple choice?
Absolutely. ... There are two issues [and], as you know, these all get
entangled. There's testing time. Obviously, if you're having kids do more
challenging kinds of tests that force them to write and explain, that's going
to take more time. Those can't be scored by machines. Those require human
beings, with judgment. ... And that means, again, there is more of a time lag
between the time of a test, and the time that results come back.
And it's more expensive.
And it's more expensive. There are exceptions to that. New York State, for
example, uses teachers to read and grade the Regents, so they are able to get
quick turnaround. And I think, again, we're in an arena where there are lots of
tradeoffs. ... Relying solely on multiple-choice tests -- which are, by
definition, the least costly -- they also give you the least useful
It's important to keep reminding ourselves, tests are only worth doing if they
provide valuable, useful information for the people who need it -- for
teachers, for parents, for policymakers. ... [B]y and
large, I think teacher-administered and scored tests as the kind of tests that
teachers routinely do in the course of their work are probably more useful for
diagnostic purposes than almost anything you can get from a state test.
But where good state tests are really important is in being able to give you
guidance about areas of weakness and strength in the curriculum and, indeed,
the instructional program -- helping at the district level, identifying what are some concepts in mathematics that we really need to work harder on?
How do we focus our professional development? In other words, they're really
for system improvement. ...
We watched some people in Virginia
working on standards, actually rewriting the history standards, and arguing,
"Well, do we need Frederick Douglass or Robert E. Lee?" And other people
arguing, "Well, we didn't have to study the Armenian genocide," or "We need to
study Mali." ... Is it always so ... incredibly complicated?
Yes, if you involve more than one or two people in doing it. By definition, it
is contentious. And in my view, appropriately so, particularly when you get
into these contested areas like history. As we're finding out, even mathematics
-- which some of us thought would be relatively easy -- [has] turned out to be
not so easy. I view that as healthy, with one big caveat. And that is that
somebody in the standards process, at the state level, needs to impose some
really tight constraints on the amount of time that any particular piece, a
subject area, can occupy in a curriculum.
What I'm driving at is that, all too often, what happens in these debates is
they get resolved by including both your pet ideas and my pet ideas. ... [They]
solve the argument by adding everything. And you then have standards documents
that begin to look rather like our textbooks. They're fat. They're voluminous.
They include everybody's pet ideas, and they encourage teachers to kind of skim
superficially over [material]. The name of the game becomes coverage, not
focusing on a few things and really going at them in some depth. ...
We saw one teacher in Virginia talk about how he was racing to get through
everything. And he likened it to cramming food down someone's mouth: No matter
how good the food is, they're not going to enjoy it.
This is where some of the more thoughtful critics of the standards movement, I
think, have a really important point to make. ... In some ways, the most
important criterion [to consider when creating standards] is being able to
answer the question, Are these concepts really the most essential concepts,
ideas, pieces of knowledge that kids really need? And as I said, in a lot of
standard-setting processes, people have not been disciplined enough to say, "We
really are going to pare down and pare down and pare down and really try to
focus on what's most essential."
So you get a laundry list?
So you get a laundry list. Right. ...
Who gets hurt if you end up with a laundry list?
Well, this comes back to this point about the importance the tests have come to
play in some states, at least, having almost cast the standards back off into
the background. If the standards documents aren't useful for teachers in
guiding curricular choices, in guiding instructional strategies, and useful to
system people in guiding professional development programs for teachers, then
the tests become in effect the de facto standards. And particularly, if you
start attaching consequences to the test, people will say, "Look, I can't get
through these standards documents. They're too voluminous. ... They may be nice
statements of what we want kids to know and be able to do, but ... what do I do
tomorrow in my classroom?"
I should say, by the way, that's been a big missing piece in a lot of this. ...
What's the missing piece?
A big missing piece is curriculum. One of the theories here was that the states
would set the standards, would define the goals here, and would set the
mechanism for measurement. But they would then leave it to districts and
schools to figure out, "OK, what do we do day by day, week by week?" ... And in
some districts, which have ... a long tradition of building their own
curriculum, that strategy has worked fine.
But we've got 15,000 school districts in the country; a lot of them small,
relatively isolated, without much of a tradition of curriculum building other
than simply making choices about texts. And to me, one of the most interesting
things that's happening in this movement is the increasing cry from teachers,
including from the teacher organizations, for more help on the curriculum side.
What's your biggest fear?
... My biggest fear is that we won't have the patience to really stay with this
strategy long enough to work through a lot of these very difficult, thorny
issues: Getting the standards right; getting the tests right; really figuring
out what high-quality sustained support for teachers looks like; getting the
curriculum supports in place.
And how long will this take?
Some of our critics like to say, "Look, the 'Nation at Risk' report ... was
1983. [It's] almost two decades later. Haven't we given this movement time
enough?" If you ask the question, even in the states that have been furthest
along and had really good leadership, how many years have there really been
changes in classrooms? ... You're talking about three or four years.
My own state, Massachusetts, [is] a good example. A law was passed in 1993. The
first set of consequences for kids [would be in] 2003. Ten years looked like
ample time. The reality is, changes in classrooms have really only kicked in
[during] the last two or three years. ...
I think it's probably going to take a generation before we really can make the
judgment. ... It took us a long time to get into the condition that many of our
schools are in. This is not something that is going to happen in a year, or
two, or three. ...
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