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Time to Say Goodbye to Our Test-and-Punish Policies

The closer they are to actual public-school classrooms, the more people understand it’s time to abandon our failed test-and-punish approach to school improvement. For more than two decades, we’ve seen how high-stakes standardized testing hurts students, especially the most vulnerable, and fails to prepare them well for life. Now, there’s a growing realization that it’s time to pause, look at the evidence, and take a different approach.

MCAS test results continue to show large test score gaps linked to race, income, disability and language. This confirms that decades of chasing higher test results have not addressed basic issues of inequality and racial injustice, inside and outside our classrooms.

As Somerville school committee member Andre Green said, “We could save ourselves a large amount of money and time and replace the entire MCAS with ‘How many bathrooms does your home have?’ We’d get roughly the same information about students and districts.”

The educational damage from testing overkill has been most intense for schools serving the neediest students. Unfortunately, the current version of the test, MCAS 2.0, creates ever more pressure to focus on boosting test scores, particularly at schools facing the risk of being labeled underperforming. That makes the negative effects even worse, effects like narrowed curricula that leads to student disengagement.

We simply cannot test and punish our way to better schools. Research confirms that high school graduation tests do not improve learning but cause real harm. That’s why 14 states have dropped them since 2012.

New York State has long had one of the nation’s most onerous exit exam policies. Students must pass five Regents subject tests to graduate high school. Now New York is considering ditching their exit exams. If that happens, Massachusetts would be one of just 10 states still using standardized exams to determine high school graduation.

Why is New York considering this move? “Simply put, the system is not working for everyone, and too many students — particularly our most vulnerable students — are leaving high school without a diploma," said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa.

Test defenders say the exams “give value” to a diploma, but research demonstrates the opposite is true. For example, studies show the tests do not improve employment prospects or college readiness and are linked to higher dropout rates. These impacts fall disproportionately on students with disabilities, English language learners and students of color.

Even graduation test defenders acknowledge that important untested subjects, such as social studies, have been shortchanged in order to prepare students for high-stakes reading and math exams. The answer, however, is not to add another graduation test.

Surveys show that most Americans think there is too much focus on standardized testing. One poll found “little support for standardized testing in contrast to the deep interest in testing by policy makers.”

Meanwhile, public school funding has failed to keep pace with real educational needs. In 2015, a state commission concluded we are underfunding our schools by at least $1 billion a year. Rising health care, special education and other costs have made it ever harder for districts to meet basic educational needs. (The legislature is now considering legislation to update state school funding. A large coalition of education and social justice groups, including CPS, have been working to get a bill called the Promise Act passed.)

Meanwhile, in what looks and feels like a bad case of inertia, many Massachusetts politicians and the state Board of Elementary and Second education remain wedded to our state’s failed testing policy.

Isn’t it time we listen to 25 years of evidence showing that our test-based accountability system is perpetuating a “charade,” as Harvard Professor Daniel Koretz calls it?

Some policymakers are listening to the rising chorus of voices calling for change. This is why more than 40 Massachusetts legislators have cosponsored House Bill 431. It would not ban testing, but instead place a moratorium on high-stakes use of exams, such as the high school graduation requirement. It would allow time to design a helpful, not harmful assessment system. For example, the bill could pave the way for schools to use projects and portfolios that measure deeper learning, along the lines of what the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment (MCIEA) has been developing in 8 Massachusetts districts.

It’s time to stop demonstrating Einstein’s “Theory of Insanity”: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Time for a new direction.

An earlier version of this article appeared on CommonWealth.

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