Massachusetts Teachers Union Chief Says More Testing Threatens “Hope for Democracy”

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MALDEN — Standardized tests present a threat to democracy and shouldn’t be expanded, the state teachers union president told the state’s education board today.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, spoke out against several new high school testing proposals at Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting.

“As both a high school English teacher and a teacher-educator, I’m deeply aware of the ways that high-stakes testing takes away from the idealism and hope, the possibility of imagination, the creativity and the hope for democracy,” Madeloni told board members.

Madeloni, during her reelection campaign last spring to retain her top spot as union honcho, vowed to fight in favor of a moratorium on all new standardized testing proposals. On Tuesday she described the new proposals as “profoundly bureaucratic and technocratic views of what it means to educate and learn.”

Board members, however, appeared enthusiastic after being briefed on the subject by Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

The board already voted earlier this year to develop a new standardized test combining aspects of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (known as MCAS) and the newer PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) exams, with students enrolled in grades three through eight slated to begin taking the new unofficial “MCAS 2.0” English and language arts and math tests in the spring.

Massachusetts high school students are currently required pass standardized tests in English, math, and science in order to graduate.

Most recently, Chester in a memo outlined plans to add history and social science tests as graduation requirements. Chester also suggested eliminating high school chemistry and technology/engineering tests, as just 5 percent of students took the tests.

“The cost and effort required to maintain these two low incidence tests is not an efficient use of our limited resources,” Chester wrote.

A state mandate for educational goals calls for history and the social sciences to have required assessment testing. The tests were originally scheduled for a 2012 implementation date, but Chester explained that an economic recession prompted board members to vote to delay implementation because of the cost.

Deputy Education Commissioner Jeff Wulfson told the board the department is “looking to explore all of the options for state-of-the-art assessment, and not necessarily tie ourselves to either a pencil-and-paper or a computer-based version of a pencil-and-paper test as we’ve traditionally used.”

Madeloni pleaded with the board to “step back.”

“We’re in a sort of moment in history where we’ve gone down a rabbit hole, where we’ve found ourselves in the smallest place of what teaching and learning can look like,” she said. “In the smallest place that denies the full humanity, education is this incredibly human space — it’s alive in all of what it means to be a human being, and yet we’ve decided through the use of high-stakes testing — we’ve found ourselves in a space that I really implore you to step back from.”

Madeloni also called the proposals to introduce more tests “breathtaking.”

“When we know what we know about the degree to which high school testing is narrowing our curriculum, is creating stress for our students and our educators and really undermining the deep complexity of what’s possible in public education?” Madeloni said.

The elementary and secondary education board plans to meet again in January jointly with the state Board of Higher Education. Chester said discussions on testing will resume at that time.

Wulfson said he hopes the new tests can “strike that right balance between getting the information that students and families and teachers need versus not wanting to be intrusive on classroom time.”

Wulfson added that the department plans to come back to the board this spring with a series of final recommendations.