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Parents, teachers critique high-stakes tests at Northampton forum

Last modified: Friday, October 24, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Gus Morales, president of the Holyoke teachers union, thinks that if the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System had been around when he was growing up, he would not have received his diploma.

“Had this been the culture of the schools when I was growing up, I would have dropped out,” he said to a crowd of more than 30 parents and educators at the Northampton High School library Thursday night.

Morales was on a panel of three local experts at a public forum on high-stakes testing in schools, such as MCAS and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests.

The event was organized by the Northampton Public Schools Action Coalition — a group of parents, teachers and community members who aim to build solidarity through a common vision for city schools — and the Northampton Human Rights Commission. Schools Superintendent John Provost was among those in attendance.

Morales, 35, said that as a student in Holyoke public schools, he found it difficult to sit still for long periods, but he could break up his day with hands-on classes such woodshop, home economics and music.

In schools today, he said, money gets pulled from these electives to go toward test preparation in curriculums.

Morales had been a teacher at the Maurice A. Donahue School in Holyoke for eight years before his contract was not renewed over the summer. He said he believes this was the result of his vocal criticisms of standardized testing.

As an educator, he said, he could identify his struggling students, and they often had unstable home lives that made it difficult for them to keep up academically. Standardized testing, he said, only widens this achievement gap.

Panel member Pixie Holbrook, mentor coordinator for Northampton schools, said the MCAS teaches students to memorize “trivia” instead of learning how to find out relevant information on their own, and there is a misconception among legislators that the MCAS is a test of basic skills.

“A diploma should never be measured on one type of measurement,” Holbrook said.

Though Jackson Street School Principal Gwen Agna was unable to attend the forum, Jennifer Reed, a kindergarten teacher at the school, read a letter that Agna sent home to students and parents when MCAS scores were released last month. In the letter, Agna explained that she does not believe the test assesses everything that is important about a child.

“The people who devise these tests and score them do not know each of you — the way your teachers do, the way I do, the way your families do,” Agna wrote. “They do not know that many of you can speak two languages. They do not know that you can play the violin or piano or that you can dance or paint a picture.”

Reed became visibly emotional as she read on, “The scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.”

Also on the panel was Tim Scott, a member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association board of directors, who read a report describing a perceived role of capitalism in the implementation of standardized tests.

Though the PARCC is intended to replace MCAS, not all school districts are ready to adopt the new test. Easthampton students in grades 3 to 8 are participating in tryouts of the PARCC tests this year, but the Northampton School Committee voted over the summer to stick with the MCAS for the 2014-15 school year. Then-interim Northampton Schools Superintendent Regina Nash had said that the Northampton schools do not have enough electronic devices to implement the computerized version of the PARCC tests.

After the panelists spoke, the audience broke into small group discussions before reconvening and asking questions.

At the end of the event, Mandy Gerry, a member of the Northampton Public Schools Action Coalition and parent of two children in the city schools, said she has seen firsthand the stress that teachers are put under by having to work standardized test preparation into the curriculum, and that she believes the tests give an inaccurate reading of how a child is performing in school.

“You’re talking about catching kids one day of the year,” she said. “Success happens in so many places in a child’s life.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at


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