Authentic learning, not test-driven compliance, is crucial as we emerge from the pandemic
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s recent decision to raise the score high school students must reach to pass the MCAS and graduate from high school is yet another slap in the face for public educators across the Commonwealth.
Coming out of the COVID pandemic MCAS scores reported in September 2021 dropped from pre-pandemic levels. Does anyone truly find this as a surprise? Throughout the pandemic schools, teachers and administrators labored to shift their instructional practices, often with little notice and on the fly, to meet the educational needs of students who shifted back and forth either individually, in groups, or as whole schools and districts from virtual, hybrid, and in-person learning. It is truly amazing what educators managed to accomplish throughout this pandemic with often late and often vague guidance from the state or our favorite response – “that’s a local decision” – effectively dumping those decisions back in our laps.
Children and families all struggled and suffered during this pandemic and educators are again stepping up to try and fill the skills gaps created by fragmented school years and breaks in instructions for students who lost time due to COVID. Schools are also struggling to support students’ mental health and social-emotional needs, which were dramatically impacted by this pandemic. As a consequence of this combination of events, scores have declined. While the board of education recognizes the challenges created by the pandemic, their response to the inevitable decline in scores is that educators are not adequately preparing our students for life after high school so let’s make it more difficult for students to pass. How does this make any sense whatsoever?
Before the board takes actions such as this, they open the decision up to public comment to help inform their decision. They have proven through their actions that such public comment is nothing but a sham, as of the over 240 (mostly educator and parents) who commented on this proposal, only 4 were in favor of raising the score necessary for high school students to graduate. Additionally, nearly 100 of our state legislators signed on to a letter in opposition to this decision. Yet, the board, in an 8-3 vote, chose to disregard that input entirely and vote to raise the cut score.All of this is occurring in an environment where districts are desperate to fill open positions due to labor shortages in all areas from superintendents to principals, to teachers, to paraprofessionals, to custodians, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers. When I first became a superintendent in 2012 there were 34 applicants for the position. When I left in July of 2021 to move into my current role, there were 8 applicants for the superintendency I was leaving. The challenge to fill principal, teacher, and support personnel positions is just as real. Yet consistently our efforts to recruit and retain educators are undermined by the narrative that we aren’t doing enough and if we just tried harder, we could improve this situation.
For over 20 years we have worked within this system where state standardized test scores have been the benchmark to judge success or failure of our teachers, schools, and children. After over 20 years the scoring discrepancies among subgroups within our schools and between communities across remain. Although the state is to be recognized for finally stepping up and providing increased funding, what educators really need is flexibility, support, and trust to reshape the educational environment within our schools. We need to try something new. Unfortunately, what is measured is what is valued and the state education board, through it actions, has once again demonstrated that what it values is higher test scores over deeper authentic learning. This acts to inhibit the change necessary for our schools and students to thrive.
There are groups out there that have been working on just that type of new thinking. Learning does not and should not happen in a vacuum, and true learning can’t be effectively captured by a standardized test. One such group, the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Educational Assessment, has for years been working through a partnership with teachers and administrators to develop and implement a system that focuses on applied learning though project-based learning and performance assessments. These instructional and assessment methods call for students to apply what they’ve learned to solve real world problems involving both interdisciplinary connections and the development of essential collaboration skills. This system is designed to both facilitate deeper learning and still allow the state to assess progress and performance.
These are also the skills that employers are saying that they need. Raising the cut score to graduate will not improve student outcomes or facilitate change. What it will do is have a disproportionately negative impact on those students, such as English language learners, low-income students, and students with disabilities, who need us the most and have been impacted the most by the pandemic.
How are we supposed to stimulate the pipeline for new teachers and administrators when they see constant attacks upon the profession prevalent in our nation today? What we most certainly don’t need is for our state board of education to buy into that narrative and take action such as they did the other day to insinuate that we aren’t doing enough.
We are at a pivotal juncture and our educational system is teetering. We need to respect teachers and administrators as professionals and support them so that they can support our kids. It is time for Massachusetts to step up and again be an innovative educational leader. The decision by the board undermines those efforts and is just an extension of a failed policy strategy that is not responsive to the needs of today’s schools, students, or society.
Todd Gazda is executive director the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton. He formerly served as superintendent of the Ludlow Public Schools.