Testing isn’t punishment, it’s a matter of social justice

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LAST YEAR WHILE CASUALLY asking my son about taking his first MCAS exam as a third grader, he responded with an adverse physical reaction at the mere mention of the word MCAS. He literally flinched with fear.

Now, I did sign many forms at the beginning of the school year, but I don’t recall the one that said teachers were allowed to create an unhealthy level of anxiety in my child based on an anti-test political agenda by the adults running the building.

As I explained to him, the MCAS test is just a tool that allows Mom and his teachers to make sure he’s learning everything he needs to know and whether the school is doing a good job for all of the kids in our neighborhood. If there’s a problem, Mom needs to know so the grown-ups can take action to fix things — his only job is to do his best. The rest of the stuff is for adults to figure out.

In her recent piece in CommonWealth, Lisa Guisbond, who represents the special interest-backed FairTest and Citizens for Public Schools, asserts that the time has come to kill testing and accountability. I would suggest that instead of lamenting the “harmful” and stressful test situation our children are suffering through, why not ask why we are allowing people to create these angst-inducing situations in the classroom to begin with?

Over the past 25 years, student achievement in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has risen to incredible heights. This is of course, in part, because we have realized the fact that in order to determine where problems and inequities exist within the education system so that intervention and improvement can take place, we must test.

The idea that we should stop assessing students at a critical moment for children of color and families in low-income areas in Massachusetts would be laughable — except there’s nothing funny about it.

While Massachusetts now consistently receives number one rankings on 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores, low-income students receive scores 25-30 points lower than those in wealthier areas, giving the Commonwealth the third-highest achievement gap for low-income students.

Parents in Massachusetts have no appetite to return to the days of celebrating barely-literate high school graduates — nor is there any movement to rush back to the days of pushing our children through the system and assessing them based on anecdote. In order for our children to be able to be adequately prepared for college, enter a trade, or move directly into the workforce, we owe it to them to give them the information they need to access the interventions they need to right the ship before it’s too late.

The truth of the matter is testing and accountability is a matter of social justice – providing a critical tool for parents to be able to determine whether their children are getting the educational experience they have been promised. Without testing and accountability, how would we even know that achievement gaps in our system exist? Without these measures, we will be headed back to the days when complaints of systematic racism were dismissed as anomalies and needless worry that is “all in our heads.”

In order for parents in Massachusetts to make the changes we need for our children immediately, we need data to be able to act. We cannot become complacent with major gaps between the achievement of our poor black and brown students and our white and more wealthy students. We’ve got to stop making excuses and telling ourselves that “those kids” can’t learn. And while parents agree that too much testing can be overkill, special interest groups continue to distort the perspective of most families in the Commonwealth by calling for a moratorium.

Recently, while attending a meeting with an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers, he lamented the fact that some students might “feel hurt” to know their school had been labeled underperforming. But as a parent with three children in the K-12 system, I worry more about the hurt my kids will feel after being failed by their schools and inadequately prepared to launch into their future. And the real tragedy lies in telling our children that they are in fact equipped with the skills needed to be ready for college – only to be faced with years of remedial courses once they arrive at the doors of higher education.

Too many of our children who have managed to scratch and claw their way to the doors of the institutions of higher learning across the Commonwealth are met with the harsh reality that they have been lied to regarding the quality of education they received and their high school diploma is barely worth the paper it’s written on.

Do we honestly think parents and taxpayers would be content to return to the “just take our word for it – they’re doing fine” approach when it comes to whether our schools are working for kids when we now have the data that backs up what our communities have known for generations?

Taking college readiness for granted might be a luxury available to some in Massachusetts, but only if you’re wealthy, white, and part of powerful special interest groups that have dominated the public discussion.

Keri Rodrigues is founder and CEO of Massachusetts Parents United.

Rebecca Rutenberg