The New Bedford School Department has made the news lately after the district’s positive results on statewide standardized tests were released last week. For the first time in several years, New Bedford has made substantial gains on these tests. The district has gone from having one school in the state’s highest accountability level (Swift) to three (Swift, Pulaski and Taylor). Other schools in the city have shown tremendous growth on these exams — more so than their peers across the state and outpacing their peers in other Gateway Cities. If you subscribe to the theory that these tests are a valid measure of students’ mastery of state standards for their grade level, this is an indisputable win for city schools and further evidence that progress is being made.
What troubles me, though, is that I’ve heard more people lauding the school department’s increase in test scores in the last week than I’ve heard lauding any other tangible improvement to the system in my two years on the School Committee. Test scores are certainly part of the equation, but we must constantly consider the emphasis we place on them in modern education. As former Mayor Lang wrote in 2011, “Standardized test scores are not the only indicia of accomplishment, and there is a growing consensus that their overuse is harming public education in the United States.” This rings true in 2015, a year in which the district has enjoyed a number of accomplishments worthy of celebration long before the release of these scores.
It’s hard to forget that test scores have been used all too often to unfairly malign the district and our schools in the past. They’ve been used to make the claim that our schools, our educators and our kids have not done as good a job as their peers in other communities. These sorts of claims ignore the myriad challenges our schools, educators and kids face that their peers do not. Recent studies suggest that neither PARCC nor MCAS are particularly useful predictors of college readiness or college success (which was the impetus for the creation and switch from MCAS to PARCC). Indeed, what these sorts of high-stakes standardized tests predict best is poverty. It is no coincidence that New Bedford’s three Level 1 schools are in more affluent neighborhoods. According to 2010 Census data, the area surrounding Taylor School is host to families with an average income of $80,204. Pulaski? $70,852. Swift? $51,873. Compare those figures to the area around Hayden-McFadden, a Level 4 school in need of “a decisive plan for significant and dramatic change,” according to the state. There, the mean household income is $26,241. More than 46 percent of households in the census tract surrounding the school have a household income of less than $15,000.
While many point to MCAS and a system of standardized testing and accountability as the reason Massachusetts has led the nation in education over the last 20 years, it’s worth noting that the state has made very few inroads in closing the “Achievement Gap” between affluent white students and their low-income, minority peers and students with disabilities. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while Massachusetts may be No. 1, the state is among the worst in closing the achievement gap in reading and math.
I would never imply that students coming from backgrounds of poverty cannot learn. I grew up in a single-parent household with household income well under $15,000 myself and I learned just fine in New Bedford Public Schools. As a state, we’ve had trouble closing the achievement gap because we’re seemingly unwilling to admit that a system of high-stakes testing and accountability doesn’t mesh with urban education, likely out of fear of lowering expectations for many students. That would be wrong. We must hold all students to a high standard, but give them the supports they need to achieve. When New Bedford has raised these issues about testing in the past, it was dismissed as defensiveness over plummeting scores. Well, now they’re on the rise, but the system is still flawed.
I would encourage anyone who shares these concerns to involve themselves in the debate as the federal government shifts from No Child Left Behind to a model that empowers states, and as Massachusetts looks to shift assessment systems over the next few years. Keep in mind the several other states, New Hampshire and California among them, that have started to reimagine their assessments, eliminating punitive aspects and creating more of a true diagnostic tool of learning through performance-based learning.
So when you read about improving test scores, you aren’t wrong to file it away as a success. The scores aren’t completely meaningless, but they hardly reveal anything we didn’t know already. Our teachers and administrators dedicate their lives to their students and work tirelessly to hone their craft. We didn’t need increased scores to know that to be true. The pat on the back for bringing scores up is, in a way, reinforcing the hyper-emphasis and misuse of testing. It ignores the hard work and educational advancement that happens in our schools every day that can’t be quantified. Education researcher Dr. Ricardo Rosa aptly questioned why schools send a letter home to parents asking that they make sure their children get a good night’s sleep and eat a hearty breakfast just before testing begins, as if the day of the test is more important than the day a student starts a new lesson or plays a violin in the holiday concert. Why is that? In 1993, the system was created to measure student learning and diagnose systemic shortcomings to ensure public funds were being used efficiently. Twenty years later, the system is arguably the main driver of education and it’s all too easy to confuse increased test scores as an end in itself, instead of creating educated students who are equipped with the skills they need for a good life.