Images by Chris Faraone
With Massachusetts public schools still in session, pessimists may have expected a low turnout at last week’s Joint Committee on Education hearing on Beacon Hill. Though there’s been an increase in frustration about standardized examinations, countless concerned parties were presumably occupied in classrooms during the opportunity to rail against assessments that direct the fate of students and teachers. Nevertheless, between perturbed parents, labor advocates, and instructors who were able to leave school early last Thursday, enough folks swarmed the State House to jam every corner and crevice of the chamber.
It was a standing room affair, a sauna in which some reporters were forced to sit on the floor with our backs to the hardwood panel of committee members. Our fronts facing a simmering capacity crowd, we waited anxiously for testimonies on H.340, an “Act relative to a moratorium on high stakes testing.” Those behind the bill—many of whom wore bright yellow stickers calling for “Less Testing More Learning”—say demands strapped on the backs of everyone from principals to students are actually driving achievement gaps, and that important lessons ranging from humanities to phys ed have eroded in the assessment deluge.
On the other side are testing moratorium opponents, an apparent mix of inner-city parents, a handful of teachers, and nonprofit ed reform advocates tied to various business interests—private equity, investment banks, mortgage lending, Walmart. This group’s members believe testing is of critical importance as a means to keep teachers in check. To drive that notion home, four state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) honchos—all men—commenced the hearing with a smearing of their adversaries that should register as a revealing moment in modern Mass pedagogical history.
First up, Mass Education Secretary James Peyser argued that moratorium proponents are peddling the same arguments that public school teachers brought two decades ago, when the Massachusetts Education Reform act first linked student test performance to funding, among other things. Immediately prior to joining the administration of Governor Charlie Baker, Peyser, formerly of the conservative Pioneer Institute, served as managing director at NewSchools Venture Fund, an education nonprofit powered by venture capitalists, as suggested in the name. With that experience likely in mind, at the hearing Peyser, a longtime booster of charter schools and privatization initiatives, conceded that “testing alone” is not the answer, still insisted that the Bay State “won’t retreat from accountability standards.”
In his turn, DESE Board Chair Paul Sagan doubled down on the “vision that’s been nurtured over the past two decades.” Sagan’s not himself an educator; before Governor Baker asked him to serve, he was the president and CEO of a technology firm, and an executive at the venture capital group General Catalyst Partners, which backs more than 200 high-tech companies including ClassDojo, a student tracking app that legal scholars told the New York Times is “recording sensitive information about students … without sufficiently considering the ramifications for data privacy.”
Sagan’s only experience in the ed sector is with the advocacy group Massachusetts Business Leaders for Charter Public Schools, which may explain his blunder at the hearing last week. Without a hint of irony, the former CEO said that in surveying districts about how much class time is used to ready kids for state assessments, his department found that about half of those polled spent less than two days a year on preparation. In response to Sagan’s comment the crowd of opponents, which was relatively tame until this point, erupted into laughter. Even legislators balked, with one lawmaker noting that many instructors with whom she spoke spent more than three weeks prepping for fill-in-the-bubble tests.
The insults kept on coming. Next to bat was DESE Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who is notorious among teachers for using results from high-stakes tests to shutter traditional public schools and to increase resources for charters and outside partners. The commish pledged that the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) will at least be in place until 2019, and chided H.340 supporters for “depriving parents” of standards. His biggest complaint: reforming testing practices, or more specifically lowering the stakes would violate federal compliance mandates, therefore putting Mass at risk of forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars. Interestingly, Chester failed to acknowledge that, in addition to his state gig he’s a board member of two national groups—the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), and the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB)—which play key roles in everything from the design of exams to the interpretation of results.
Not to be outdone, former DESE board member and renowned ed reformer Jeff Howard managed an ideal anecdote to aggravate seemingly all of the onlooking educators. To Howard, who has consulted districts nationwide, teachers aren’t to be trusted, with the only possible exceptions being in places like “Weston and Wellesley,” where he contends that parents “don’t accept anything other than top standards.” As an example, in his testimony Howard trashed and mocked the faculty members of a failing school that once hired him; despite that institution being in New York, the consultant then segued to label the contemporary lot of public educators as the most disconnected from reality he’s seen to date.
It wasn’t all doom for the anti-testers. Many lawmakers refused to buy the education department line, and some directly called out Peyser, whose incomprehensible responses sounded something like Dana Carvey debating as George H.W. Bush on “Saturday Night Live.” “Students need to know how to take tests,” Peyser said. “That’s a part of life I suppose.” Chester hardly fared any better on the hot seat, saying he’s proactively asked many teachers for their thoughts on testing, but in doing so tends to become frustrated by their reluctance to use exam scores as a tool.
Before the hearing was moved to a larger auditorium to accommodate all members of the public who showed up to give and witness testimony, a few additional pols approached to flank H.340, or at least the sentiment behind it. Commenting on stress spurred by assessments, Rep. Carmine Gentile of Sudbury explained how exam companies provide plastic receptacles to be used in the case that a student pukes mid-test; the administering teacher is to open the barf bag, insert the soiled exam, and return it as evidence. Sen. Barbara L’Italien of Lawrence hit just as hard, asking the DESE group, “At what point do we have so much data that we’ve lost track of why we’re there?” For encores, former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang and Taunton Rep. Shaunna O’Connell separately noted, among other things, that many schools in low-income communities lack computers for exams, therefore leaving pencil-pushing students at a disadvantage.
“Standardized tests?” Lang said, scoffing in disgust. “I’ve never met a standardized kid.”