On High-Stakes Tests and Discrimination

| by Susan Senator

Even though I am no longer a member of my town’s School Committee, I am still a part of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and Superintendents email listserve. A propos to a question posed by a School Committee Member from a different town, I wrote the response below. Massachusetts is one of many states in our country that administers a high-stakes test that determines whether a student gets a diploma. I have protested this policy ever since its inception, over 10 years ago. Here is my argument. If you agree, feel free to substitute your own information and state and send it along to your Board of Education, local newspaper, and state representatives.

What Massachusetts ought to do is administer the MCAS but not tie it to graduation, i.e., not make it a high stakes test but simply another standard by which to measure a student’s proficiencies.  Otherwise you do indeed get a system that discriminates — not only against better resourced school systems (per today’s Globe op ed) but also against different learning styles.

Let me give you an extreme but poignant example.  My own son, severely autistic, now 20, has benefited phenomenally from my town’s generous special education.  Despite great struggle, he has learned how to read, how to converse (limited, but still…), how to live in a group home, how to be street safe, and how to control his frustrations that come from such a communication deficit as his (he is no longer aggressive, thank God and thank a terrific education).  He also works 5 part-time jobs:  3 at his school, 2 at Papa Gino’s.  They are fading out his job coach because he has become so independent and capable.  He is now an educated person who can contribute to society.

If you measure how far Nat has come since he first started school at age 3, you would probably see off-the-charts progress!  And yet, because of our system, Nat will not get a diploma when he turns 22.  I don’t think he will care, but it always makes me sad because what does a diploma symbolize these days, if it won’t reward someone who has worked as hard and come as far as Nat?  To me it’s some sort of exclusive club membership, then — not at all what a public school education is supposed to be about.