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COLUMN

MCAS Fails The Grade

Vivek Rao

Quick: A solar eclipse occurs when A) the moon blocks the Earth from the sun B) the first four planets in the solar system are aligned C) Earth blocks the moon from the sun D) Earth’s shadow falls on the sun. Not too hard, you say? Perhaps, but this typical Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS ) question -- no, it’s not from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- will soon determine whether or not students graduate from high school, a ridiculous concept, to say the least.

The test is administered each year to Massachusetts fourth, eighth, and tenth graders in a number of subjects, most importantly English, mathematics, and science. In the first few years of the MCAS era, the results have been quite staggering, with sometimes as many as 60-80 percent of students either failing or needing improvement in a subject. Now, however, we move into the next phase of MCAS, when high school students are required to pass the tenth grade version of the test in order to receive a high school diploma.

Students at all grade levels fare rather poorly on the MCAS tests, but state lawmakers will tell you that the problem is not with the MCAS, but with the students, the teachers, and the curricula. On one level, they are right in that the quality of education can always use improvement. On another level, however, it is ludicrous to evaluate thirteen years of structured education with an approximately 20-hour test. It is impossible to measure a high school student simply on the basis of his or her ability to take some standardized test, for more goes in making a solid citizen that filling in a bunch of circles with a number two pencil.

Colleges, as skewed as their admittance system may be, realize this, and that is why they do not make decisions simply based on SAT scores; instead they take into consideration a number of factors, academic and otherwise. Similarly, the Massachusetts Department of Education needs to reform its policy immediately. Accountability, the idea behind MCAS, is itself not the problem. With public education as decentralized as it is today, it is very important that statewide and nationwide standards be developed in order to ensure a high quality of learning in all American schools. Yet accountability should not be a one-shot deal; evaluation of school districts, teachers, and students should be based on a variety of factors, rather than just one test such as the MCAS. Such profound emphasis on one test can only have detrimental effects.

With schools and towns required to produce satisfactory MCAS results, the innovative curricula that currently exist will be replaced by a standardized program geared toward raising scores. Certainly there is a need for a certain level of uniformity, but under the proposed system, all school districts will be forced to pander to the requirements of the Department of Education. Furthermore, the MCAS tests only a certain set of skills. In fact, I would challenge those politicians backing the MCAS to take the test! As a student who took the test a few years ago, I have no doubt that more than a few lawmakers would not be “advanced” in every subject. That is not to say that they are ignorant or incapable, or undeserving of a high school diploma. It would simply show that the MCAS -- or any other test for that matter -- is unable to make a definitive evaluation of a person and their education. While Massachusetts politicians like Paul Celluci sit on their hands, criticizing the latest MCAS results, time is running out for students who will be required to pass the test in order to graduate. If lawmakers do not wake up from their deep slumber, this preposterous system will cause a huge number of students to fall through the cracks, their lives tarnished as a result of the flaws of the MCAS.