Guest columnist Jonathan Kahane: Give MCAS some time off

  • Northampton Association of School Employees Vice President Heather Brown talks about organizing a standout in front of Northampton City Hall on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, in opposition to MCAS testing during the pandemic.

Published: 1/1/2021 6:24:10 AM
Modified: 1/1/2021 6:23:58 AM

Letter to the editor: “You know Jon, at best only about half of what you say makes any sense at all.”

   That, and similar comments, have been directed toward me since I can remember. In fact, a couple of you have even expressed it on these pages. As a kid, I would often take the barb to heart and shut up. Now, as a senior citizen, I actually take it as a compliment. I recognize that 50% actually puts me at the head of the class. It could be due to grade inflation, but compared to what is being expressed by others I’m doing extraordinarily well.

I would like to comment on a topic which had been hiding under the radar until the Gazette finally chose to publish its lead story on Dec. 7: “Protests grow over MCAS” by Bera Dunau and Scott Merzbach. Since that article was published, officials have thankfully postponed and extended MCAS testing deadlines, but in my opinion their actions are insufficient.

The above-referenced article seemed to focus on the fact that the additional stress placed on teachers and students during the current upheaval precludes MCAS testing at this time. Although I completely agree with this assessment, there are several other reasons to suspend testing this year and for a year or two beyond.

I do believe that standardized testing has a place in education. It’s important to know how our students are doing in math, science, and reading from year to year. In addition it’s helpful to get a handle on how students are performing from region to region, and even country to country.

This year, given the pandemic however, there are too many extraneous variables that would confound the results. As an example, some schools use in-person learning, others use the remote model, and still others use some variety of a hybrid approach. In fact many schools are flipping back and forth between these strategies.

I would like to address a more volatile and highly charged subject with regard to administering the MCAS at this time. When students are taking a test, they are not spending time learning the “Three Rs” in the classroom. Granted, they may be getting experience in taking a test, but time in the classroom in this country is at a premium.

I do support standardized testing in limited circumstances. For example, the valid and reliable international PISA test is used to compare students’ abilities across the nations of the world in science, math, and reading.

In 2018, the most recent results I could find, the U.S. ranked 25th on average across the three disciplines. China, Singapore, and Macao were the top three. Yes, this is disturbing, but don’t fret. We are found just behind Czechia and just ahead of Latvia. You do know where both of those countries are right?

To return to my point of MCAS testing taking time away from the classroom, this is more critical than noticing it at first blush. The modal number of school days per academic year in our country is 180. One should also factor in “trip days,” “field days,” “early dismissal days” and “half days.” (Half days are counted as full days for students in Massachusetts. With that method of ciphering, Latvia will pass us very soon.) It pales in comparison to China’s 245 school days per year. Their day is also significantly longer than ours — 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (They do take a two-hour lunch break though. Slackers!)

In order to preempt those of you who are invariably thinking, “Well, if you don’t like it here why don’t you leave?” my response is that I have heard that “Love it or leave it” refrain from jingoists through the years — in Alabama during the Freedom Rides, in Washington, D.C., during the ’60s, and most recently during the last four years across our country. I prefer the statement, “Love it and make it better.”

Believe it or not we could improve the safety on our streets by studying tiny Luxembourg’s system, which boasts the lowest per-capita gun violence in the world. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I was happy to learn that the powers that be have postponed MCAS testing for most students during the next testing period. That pause should be extended for at least a year or two until things can be stabilized and remedial work can be done.

I’ll conclude with this suggestion from MCAS advocates which leads me to wonder if they could pass the test. Some have proposed to make it a take home test. Mom and dad, you had better start studying right now!

Jonathan Kahane lives in Westhampton.

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