‘Find out what they know and fix it’: veteran math coach Stephen Erikson on helping students pass MCAS
Tutor and former math teacher Stephen Erikson works with students around the region preparing them for standardized test such as the MCAs and the SATs.
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Florence resident Stephen Erikson works with Northampton High School student Jagy Riesz, tutoring in in Algebra II. He has also helped her prepare for the MCAS and SAT standardized tests.
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As a veteran math teacher and tutor, Stephen Erikson is on the front lines of standardized testing. Erikson, 66, taught math at Smith Academy in Hatfield for more than three decades before retiring in 2006 — including a course designed specifically around the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests given to public school students in grades 3 through 8 and 10.
Since then, he has been a math coach at Chicopee Comprehensive High School, working with students who have failed the MCAS tests the state now requires for graduation. He said 10 of his 17 students at the Chicopee high school passed in the latest testing round this past spring.
Erikson also offers private MCAS tutoring for students from schools throughout the region who have failed the test or want to improve their scores to qualify for state scholarships. He also coaches students privately who want to bring up their math scores on the SAT tests.
Erikson, a city native who graduated from Northampton High School and Bates College in Maine, has been involved in public schools in other ways, including as a former pole vaulting coach at NHS. In Florence, where he lives with his wife, Patricia, he serves as president of the Lilly Library Trustees. The couple have two adult children, Michael and Kelly, and two grandchildren, who attend Northampton public schools.
The Gazette interviewed Erikson last month about what he’s learned about MCAS during his years in public education. Below are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Q: What do you feel MCAS actually measures? Are the tests able to gauge student achievement in a subject?
Erikson: MCAS measures their ability to learn how to handle certain problems. The testers keep changing the questions and it can be difficult (for students) to know what they are trying to ask. With the kids I work with, I know they know the material we have prepared them for on MCAS. My job is to do my best to have the students be successful, to increase the amount they are prepared for.
Q: In your role as a math coach at Chicopee Comprehensive, how long do you usually get to work with students who are trying to pass MCAS?
Erikson: I’ve got 25 days to get the kids ready — three days to set up and then 22 days to teach. I give them a test, correct it and go over the questions. Normally, the kids don’t get to see what they’ve done. So the (MCAS) is not as useful as it could be. At Chicopee Comp, it can be up to seven kids at a time. I love the one-on-one. They can’t escape you that way. You find out what they know and you fix it.
Q: What type of students come to you for help? Are there common reasons students are failing MCAS?
Erikson: They’re all over the map. There’s no one thing that everyone has gotten wrong. An awful lot of kids I see at Chicopee Comp have gotten tossed out of class over the years for discipline problems. In their junior year, the test is suddenly looming because they want a diploma. Some kids will shut down in a big class or if they have other kids in the room who are answering all the time. If it’s two or three kids, I can put my hands on them and reach them. (In private tutoring), I’ve had one student since he was at JFK Middle School. Now he’s a junior at NHS.
Q. Supporters of MCAS say the tests help identify achievement gaps. Do you agree?
Erikson: Kids that can pass MCAS and do pass MCAS have a better chance in the next course they are taking. It’s learning how to learn. So if I can teach a kid how to prepare for a problem about the mean (in math), I can prepare them for a statistics course. You have to figure out how they learn.
Q. How exactly do you teach students to pass MCAS?
Erikson: I have 11 different categories from the old problems for the spring tests and the retests. So, this question is geometry, this is statistics, this is algebra, this is probability. I stick the questions in an envelope in an order I feel comfortable teaching. Then I put them all together on a clean piece of paper and conclude each with an open response question from that category. My categories work. When a kid has mastered a category, I put it aside. I have six bags of two years worth of questions. The hard part is remembering to put them back in the right bag.
Q. What’s your success rate?
Erikson: Sixty percent pass the retest. They may not pass it this time, but they keep taking it till they do. It’s great to celebrate them. I enjoy it. I go over and shake their hand and congratulate them. I just had 17 kids and 10 passed. That for me was tremendous. There were kids who’d been with me for four times. I can’t wait to see them when I go back to Chicopee Comp.
Q. How did you get interested in teaching math?
Erikson: I was going for a Ph.D. in chemistry and I hated it. I’m a people person. I tried teaching high school and loved it. The way I got into this test business was I wasn’t about to let my next door neighbor beat me on the SAT. I found I could improve my score. My senior year (at NHS), I took all kids of tests, anything that had a scholarship with it.
Q. What about people who get nervous taking tests? Is that something you can teach students to overcome?
Erikson: That’s not a test taking skill, that’s a personality skill that you can remain calm. My tutoring alleviates that because the kids get comfortable with the questions. The mystique is off. If they’ve availed themselves of the tutoring, they will be OK. What I tell kids is, “You don’t have to get every question right. What I’m going to do is increase the number of things you can get right.”
Q. Is there anything you would change about MCAS?
Erikson: I wish there was an alternative for those kids who are very, very close to being able to pass. It’s too high stakes for me. It’s hateful for the kids not to pass, especially those that are really trying. There was a learning curve with MCAS before it was required for graduation. It was from 1998 to 2001 before it counted. In the beginning, the best kids blew the test off. When it counted, that changed.
Q. What would you say to policymakers about MCAS?
Erikson: Have more time for those kids who’ve failed the test. Identify at-risk students early and get them having time to prepare so they don’t have the stigma of failing. If we deem that this is important, then we should prepare kids to pass it. It’s not a bad life lesson, improving performance. Having learned for the MCAS, they can do anything.