Thursday, January 02, 2003

More news from Boston:

It's always fun to watch the Fox TV show Boston Public. It's set in the fictional Winslow High School, somewhere in Boston, which just happens to be the only public high school in the state of Massachusetts whose problems are limited to drugs, violence, sex, and students and parents who just don't give a damn. At most schools here, everyone --- teachers, staff, students, parents, everyone --- is worried sick about the MCAS.

What, pray tell, is this MCAS? It's a testing program pushed on the state, due in large measure to the efforts of Boston University Grand Poobah John Silber, he of the Taj Mahal office suite, while serving as head of the state board of education. It has the alleged goal of forcing students to bone up on the basics, and forcing teachers to be accountable for the progress of their students. So, for example, high school students can no longer collect a diploma with proving they know such elemental and basic facts of history as the purpose of the Treaty of Tordesillas (signed in 1494, in case that jogs your memory), and the major military challenges faced by the empire of Charlemagne.

There has been opposition to this testing program from all over the place, including public school systems which are excellent by any standard; the schools in Lincoln, for example, had to displace excellent student-directed in-depth study programs to make way for memorization from the test --- not to mention the significant cut out of teaching time taken by the test itself.

But, perhaps you say, you have to consider effects of the testing program on the state as a whole, including disadvantaged communities? Well, a recent study says that testing programs like MCAS don't help them either:

... after adopting such exams, twice as many states slipped against the national average on the SAT and the ACT as gained on it. The same held true for elementary-school math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam overseen by the United States Department of Education.

Trends on Advanced Placement tests were also worse than the national average in 57 percent of those states, while movement in elementary-school reading scores was evenly split ? better than the national average in half the states, worse in the other half. The only category in which most of the states gained ground was middle-school math, with 63 percent of them bettering the national trend.

Of course, one math test is pretty much like another, more so than history tests or reading. Moreover, even gains on average test scores themselves don't necessarily mean that the schools have gotten any better:

Perhaps most controversial, the study found that once states tie standardized tests to graduation, fewer students tend to get diplomas. After adopting such mandatory exit exams, twice as many states had a graduation rate that fell faster than the national average as those with a rate that fell slower. Not surprisingly, then, dropout rates worsened in 62 percent of the states, relative to the national average, while enrollment of young people in programs offering equivalency diplomas climbed.

The reason for this is not solely that struggling students grow frustrated and ultimately quit, the study concluded. In an echo of the findings of other researchers, the authors asserted that administrators, held responsible for raising tests scores at a school or in an entire district, occasionally pressure failing students to drop out.

These sorts of effects are familiar to interested observers around here.

So why push an agenda so hard which doesn't actually work? Well, why do Silber's school rules at BU effectively forbid students from having guests late in their rooms? There's a certain sort of conservative thought which sees the imposition of rules on hoi polloi as creating order, which is good in itself. And while the rules are presented and rationalized as having to do with education, that's not the only thing that's going on. It's not just about education --- it's about power.

By the way, does anyone know where exactly in Boston Winslow High is supposed to be? The exterior shots look like they might have been filmed at a real school in East Boston, but I sometimes get the feeling Winslow High is supposed to be somewhere else...


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