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Keeping Score: The kind of increasingly popular standardizd test that unequivocally determines whether or not a student will be granted a high school diploma is known around educators as "high stakes." Just how high, and for whom and to what end?

photograph of teachersBY ANNA MARIE MURPHY

On a balmy spring evening in may -- what lately passes for protest season in the public schools of Massachusetts -- Boston College education professor Walter Haney sits cross-legged on the floor of the stage of the Oak Hill Middle School auditorium in suburban middle-class Newton, going over notes for his presentation. A compact man with disheveled white hair, he is the picture of studiousness as the room bubbles to life around him.

In the auditorium seats, some 200 parents, students, teachers, and other interested parties are gathering for a forum on the three-year-old Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a springtime battery of challenging tests required of students primarily in grades four, eight, and 10 by the state's 1993 Education Reform Act. Thus far the tests -- mostly multiple-choice, with some open-ended or essay questions -- have been used only to help identify weak students, ineffectual schools, and struggling school districts. Now MCAS (pronounced em-kas) is on the brink of becoming the state standard for graduation -- that is, to use educators' jargon, on the brink of becoming "high stakes."

Beginning with the high school class of 2003 (the 2000-01 sophomores), virtually all public school students will have to pass the 10th-grade version of the math and English MCAS tests in order to receive a high school diploma. They'll get five chances. And if current trends persist, many students will need all five and more. Last year, 34 percent of sophomores failed the English section and 45 percent failed the math. Among African-American students the figures were more grim: 60 percent failed the English portion and 77 percent the math. Latino students fared even worse.

Most in Haney's audience already feel a personal or professional stake in the matter, and when they stand at their seats to speak, their tones are charged and angry. A mother assails what she calls the "demoralization" of children who fail -- a particular concern for parents whose children have learning disabilities or attend vocational school and must take the tests along with students on the honors track. A principal decries the disruption of ordinary curriculum and the sacrifice of enrichment programs to prepare for the tests, as well as the class time lost to the tests themselves, which can take upwards of 30 hours to complete. (His own eighth graders happened to have scored best in the state in the previous year; when reporters asked how that felt, his reply was, "I feel outraged.") A teacher on the board of the Massachusetts Teachers Association warns that if large numbers of students continue to fail the MCAS -- which seems likely -- opportunists will push hard for the privatization of public schools. "Public education is the place to make money today," he says, citing charter schools and vouchers. But first, "you have to prove the system doesn't work." Students are heard from too. A teenager from a nearby high school reports that 20 sophomores in her school had a zero averaged in to their English grade as punishment for boycotting the tests.

The evening turns ugly when Deputy Commissioner of Education Alan Safran rises from the audience to defend the MCAS tests. Parents and teachers shout him down. "Are you a teacher?" several ask rhetorically.

On the stage, Walt Haney remains silent through the most heated moments. His role in the forum is to provide hard information, and he is the only speaker whose presentation includes overhead slides of tables and charts.

For a professional lifetime, and for the 17 years he's been associated with Boston College's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy (CSTEEP), Walt Haney's research has focused on the unintended negative consequences of high-stakes testing. Over the years, his work has fueled legal challenges to government-mandated tests in states including North Carolina, New York, Mississippi, and Texas. "I have this terrible weakness for civil rights lawyers," he says.

Haney is no stranger to grass-roots forums on MCAS like the one at Oak Hill, and he makes no secret of his opposition to using tests -- even relatively well-crafted ones -- as the sole gateway to student advancement. He shares with his audience the results of his studies and those of some of his colleagues: about how the MCAS tests compare inconsistently with older, well-established tests; how their handwriting requirements prompt schools to pull students away from computers for retrograde longhand exercises; and how high-stakes tests elsewhere have spurred a rise in student dropouts.

CSTEEP (pronounced see-steep) was founded at Boston College in 1980 within the Lynch School of Education by George Madaus, who is the Boisi Professor of Education and Public Policy, and Associate Professor Joseph Pedulla. What began as an operational umbrella for a handful of scholars conducting research on testing has expanded today to include some 80 staff and associates. The group outgrew its headquarters in Campion Hall about three years ago. Some of its researchers now have offices in the football stadium; others occupy a pair of trailers in the parking lot of the Merkert Chemistry Center on BC's lower campus.

During the 1990s, the center was home to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) -- which remains active in some 40 countries and represents the largest international assessment of student achievement in math and science. Two years ago, TIMSS spun off to form the International Study Center at BC. Current programs under CSTEEP include the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, described by one associate as "a sort of Consumer Reports for people using tests." The board monitors and evaluates testing programs around the country. Researchers in another program are working with school systems in six U.S. cities -- Minneapolis; San Diego; Chattanooga; Corpus Christi; Louisville, Kentucky; and Long Beach, California -- to improve their assessments of student performance. In 1999-2000, CSTEEP took in $2.5 million in grant money, placing it among the University's leading recipients of outside funding.

Not long ago, the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation published a censorious paper by Richard P. Phelps, a proponent of high-stakes tests, entitled "Why Testing Experts Hate Testing." Phelps, who has provided research for the Indiana Department of Education and the federal Government Accounting Office, accused both CSTEEP and UCLA's Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing -- the nation's top two programs in educational measurement studies -- of harboring antitesting bias; accused them, in effect, of allowing politics through the door. Although some members of the Lynch School faculty do enter the political fray over high-stakes testing -- usually, like Walt Haney, in opposition -- the full picture, as ever, is more complicated.

The fact is that educational testing in this country has been entangled with political purposes almost from its beginnings. Research programs on testing at BC, for instance, got a big boost from the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Among that law's goals was "the fullest development of the mental resources" of the country's youth. The federal money it unleashed nourished not only university studies but also, through the conduits of state and local education departments, the nascent testing industry.

The high-stakes testing movement that is now capturing state capitals grew out of concerns that the emphasis on student self-esteem and the softening of public school curricula during the 1960s and 1970s had resulted in the need for remedial classes on US college campuses -- the "rising tide of mediocrity" cited in the National Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 report "A Nation at Risk."

Some of the most distinguished names in testing scholarship and practice appear on the Lynch School's faculty rolls. Consult almost any treatise on the use of standardized tests and you will find citations for research by Walt Haney and George Madaus.

Professor Albert Beaton's career in the testing industry encompasses key posts at the most prominent testing organizations in the country, including the Educational Testing Service, home of the SATs. Professor Diana Pullin, who is also a lawyer, has provided counsel in nearly every significant court case addressing high-stakes testing for high school graduation in the past 22 years.

As the MCAS protest season looms again in Massachusetts -- indeed, as controversies over high-stakes testing heat up nationwide -- the Lynch School is likely to be a center of attention, and a font of information.

Among the studies that Walt Haney described at the Oak Hill forum was one undertaken by George Madaus, together with Professor Irwin Blumer and doctoral students Catherine Horn and Miguel Ramos. To see how the MCAS measured up against other tests, the team compared 3,728 Massachusetts eighth-grade students' ratings on the mathematics portion of the test (four ratings are awarded: Failing, Needs Improvement, Proficient, and Advanced) with the same students' scores on the nationwide Stanford 9 math test. What they found raises questions about how the MCAS categorizes students. Although the highest-scoring students tended to do well on both tests, and low-scoring youngsters were also fairly consistent, there were plenty of exceptions. Indeed, the 40 percent of pupils who did best on the Stanford test showed up all over the MCAS scoring range: Some 18 percent placed in the MCAS Failing category, and 27 percent were designated Needs Improvement.

Madaus, a lean man with a sharp gaze, likens standardized tests to the protagonist of an English song, "Cosmo, the Fairly Accurate Knife Thrower." If there's one thing that he thinks the general public ought to know about tests, it's that they are fallible. "People tend to take test scores and reify them," he says. "But decisions made on the basis of test scores can often be wrong -- in either direction." The high-stakes decision about whether to graduate a student should turn not on a single test, he says, but on a variety of indicators, including classroom performance. "If a doctor gets a bad number back on a prostate-cancer test," he observes, "the doctor gets other measures before doing anything radical."

The passing score on each MCAS test is 220 (on a scale from 200 to 280). But, says Madaus, "If you look at the work product on tests between a 219 and a 220 -- or even between 218 and 222 -- there's really no difference. I'm of the opinion that these cut scores are taken too damn seriously."

Madaus is not opposed to standardized tests. In fact, he serves on the state's technical advisory committee for the MCAS. The MCAS is, by his account, "state of the art." But, he says, when a test, by virtue of being high stakes, comes to represent broad educational standards, a "corruption" typically follows. It's called the Tradition of the Past Exam -- teachers using old tests to prepare students for the next one.

In a paper he published in 1985 with Vincent Greaney, Ph.D.'73, now an education specialist for the World Bank, Madaus described the preposterously dramatic effect this practice can have. He and Greaney looked at student essays written to obtain the Primary Leaving Certificate in Ireland during the 1940s. In three consecutive years, students were asked to write about a bicycle ride (1946), a day in the bog (1947), and a bus tour (1948). There must have been a great deal of rehearsal from the same script, however, because despite changes in subject matter, passing essays by different students in 1947 and 1948 contained the singular sentence, "Early summer roses grew all over the pergola which stood in the middle of the garden." No doubt the teachers of 1947 and 1948 thought they'd taught their pupils well, but at that point, says Madaus, the test wasn't measuring writing anymore. It was measuring the ability to "memorize stock phrases and give them back."

The MCAS tests had been around for only a year when the Tradition of the Past Exam began to take root in Massachusetts. After the first administration of the eighth-grade test in 1998, the Department of Education published an example of a high-scoring student essay on the Internet, as a guide to teachers. A somewhat gory indictment of television violence, the essay began with the command: "Imagine a woman lying on the ground. . . ." In 1999, say test scorers, quite a few essays began with the word "Imagine."

Does it matter that teachers are teaching to the test if the test reflects high standards? "No test is good enough to be a curriculum," says Madaus.

Nearly all states test their students to see how they measure up to curriculum standards, if only for diagnostic purposes. Over the next few years, 28 states will require the passage of an exit test for graduation. One state that is years ahead of Massachusetts -- and indeed most of the country -- in its high-stakes testing experience is Texas. The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) has been administered since the 1990-91 school year. Passing the test became a graduation requirement in 1992-93.

As with the MCAS, students in Texas take the TAAS primarily in the fourth, eighth, and 10th grades. Like the MCAS, the TAAS is meant to serve multiple purposes: to gauge the competence of individual students and their schools, and to push students and schools toward more rigorous standards by testing for advanced academic skills and "higher-order thinking."

In 1998, however, concern about the lagging scores of African-Americans and Latinos on the TAAS prompted the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Texas to approach Walt Haney and ask if he would study the data and serve as an expert witness in an upcoming court challenge (G.I. Forum v. Texas Education Agency). Haney ended up spending four days on the stand in the federal district court in San Antonio during the fall of 1999, discussing his findings on, among other things, dropout rates and the numbers of Texas students who were being kept back from grade to grade.

The challenge failed, but Haney was intrigued enough by what he had learned that he continued his Texas research. (His willingness to take up causes has earned him the sobriquet "resident Don Quixote" at the Lynch School.) Haney's findings were published by the online Education Policy Analysis Archives on August 19 in a report entitled "The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education." Owing to the presidential campaign, the study attracted a fair amount of publicity.

Haney had managed, in effect, an end run around a daunting roadblock to determining the efficacy of the TAAS: namely, the notoriously inaccurate dropout statistics kept by the Texas Education Agency. Several years ago, a state audit determined that dropouts were being underestimated by as much as a hundred percent (the old counting methods are now being revised). So Haney started from scratch. He collected statewide high school graduation data and enrollment figures by race for every grade for 20 years. What he found was that in the first year of the TAAS, 1990-91, the high school minority population took a slide from which it has never fully recovered.

Students -- mostly minorities, but whites also -- who had stayed the course from first grade onward were being held back to repeat the ninth grade in increasingly large numbers. By the late 1990s, says Haney, Texas schools were keeping back 25 to 30 percent of minority students and about 10 percent of white students just on the eve of the high-stakes 10th-grade test. Although these were undoubtedly the weakest students, who could well benefit from some kind of remedial help, Haney suspects that in too many cases teachers and administrators were holding them back to make their schools' 10th-grade scores "look better." In Texas, not only are poor TAAS scores a blot on a school and its teachers, but teachers and administrators may qualify for cash bonuses -- sometimes as much as $25,000 -- when their students make gains on the tests.

Scholars elsewhere have uncovered the dampening effect that being separated from peers and staying back a grade can have on teenage students and their will to persevere to graduation. In Texas, Haney has found, only two out of every 10 ninth-graders who are held back ever finish high school. Two will eventually earn a national GED certificate; another two will end up in Texas's official count of dropouts. And four will simply disappear from the books.

As a sidebar to his research on dropouts, Haney has become something of an accidental expert on test cheating by educators. In Texas there appear to have been at least a dozen instances so far, he says, including a case involving suspicious erasures in Houston, in which three teachers were implicated. Two years ago the Austin Independent School District was indicted for tampering with student information.

Massachusetts, with its less centralized education system, has no cash rewards policy (though, like Texas, the state does threaten to take over schools where high failure rates persist). But already some Massachusetts communities -- the Nauset Regional School District, for example, and the town of Milford -- have begun unilaterally tying school wages to MCAS scores.

Massachusetts differs from Texas in another essential way. While in Texas the dropout rate approaches 30 percent, Massachusetts embarks on its own high-stakes era with one of the lowest dropout rates in the country, less than 4 percent. At the same time, the TAAS is a relatively easy test; its 10th-grade math questions, for instance, align with eighth-grade (some specialists say sixth-grade) expectations. The MCAS tests, on the other hand, are considered to be among the most challenging exit exams in the country. To put the high rate of MCAS failures in human dimensions, of the 69,000 high school sophomores who will take the MCAS this spring, an estimated 30,000 are expected to fall short of the passing mark.

Already, the number of students in Boston who are repeating at least one subject in the ninth grade has doubled in the past year. "I personally think," says Haney, "that the ramifications of my work on Texas portend a tragedy that's going to happen here in Massachusetts."

Proponents of MCAS tend to stress the goals of the 1993 Education Reform Act and its achievements to date. They point out, for instance, that before 1993, the only statewide requirements for graduation were a single year of American history and four years of gym. Although often the center of controversy, and prone to delays, new comprehensive curriculum guides -- called the Frameworks -- now exist in Math; English and Language Arts; Science, Technology, and Engineering; History and Social Science; Foreign Languages; Health; and the Arts.

Students have also seen a new emphasis on writing in Massachusetts classrooms -- a response to the long composition requirement and to the open-ended questions that appear on all MCAS tests. According to the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes billed as the Nation's Report Card, Massachusetts eighth-graders ranked second in the country in writing performance in 1998. Ironically, they achieved this even as 45 percent earned the label Failing or Needs Improvement in their English MCAS scores that same year.

And then there is the investment that has accompanied education reform and the MCAS: State spending for public education has risen in Massachusetts from $1.25 billion in 1992 to $2.8 billion in 2000. As Republican Governor Paul Cellucci '70, JD'73, has made clear, MCAS testing is the price that schools and students must pay for this more than doubling of state funding. It is the means to determine whether the money is being well spent. "We made a deal in 1993 with all the players," Cellucci has been quoted as saying. "We said, We'll provide a lot more money . . . but we ask for one thing in return: accountability."

Nearly as important as the money has been the attention. Thanks to the controversial test, a brighter light now shines on public education issues in the state than at any time since the days of Horace Mann. The test has prompted new remedial efforts -- $3.7 million appropriated in Boston, for example, for a program on teaching math, and mandatory summer school for that city's failing students.

The bottom line is that high-stakes testing carries with it a sometimes brutal calculus of human gains and human losses. Where to place the values in this calculus is a political decision.

BC Education Professor Albert Beaton, a former director of CSTEEP, is more favorably disposed to high-stakes standardized tests than either Walt Haney or George Madaus. Beaton has spent most of his career in the testing industry. For 27 years, he worked at the Educational Testing Service, where he oversaw research and data analysis. In 1966, his third year at ETS, Beaton served as the chief technical expert for what journalist Nicholas Lemann, in his 1999 book The Big Test, has called "the single best-known piece of quantitative social science in American history," the Coleman Report, an investigation of black student underperformance. Beaton went on to serve as director of design, research, and data analysis for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Upon arriving at Boston College in 1990, he launched the international TIMSS project. Three years ago data from TIMSS were used to show that eighth-grade science students in Massachusetts ranked ahead of their peers in Japan, Germany, England, and 37 other countries (behind only Singapore internationally).

To Beaton, the problem is not so much that mixing high standards with high stakes produces more failures -- "of course when you do that more people will flunk," he says. The problem is that there are no clear or happy answers for what comes next. If the cost of high standards "is to flunk kids out, never to return," he says, "we don't want that in this country."

Last November the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, by a lopsided count of 137 to 30, voted to recommend suspending the MCAS graduation requirement indefinitely. The association maintained that because of state delays in producing the Frameworks, schools had not had enough time to adjust their curricula to the tests. Indeed, a survey by the Massachusetts Teachers Association suggests that only about half have managed to do so in math.

Elizabeth Reilinger, chairwoman of the Boston School Committee, was one of the few dissenting voices. She sees the MCAS as an ally in an effort to channel state support to the school districts that need it most. "You could get into a discussion about whether this is the right test or a fair test or a perfect test," she says, "and it's not necessarily any of those. However, it is a form of establishing some baseline for accountability."

It's also, she says, a way to measure whether the new remedial programs are working. The reality, she says, is that "If MCAS is not high stakes, people won't take it seriously." Research at BC and elsewhere suggests that teenage test-takers in particular are apt to slack off.

State Commissioner of Education David Driscoll '64, Ph.D.'81, agrees that "until kids try," there will be no way to tell how they measure up against the new tougher standards. Even so, he says he is "very comfortable" with the passing score that the state has set for the MCAS. "I'm confident that [students] who don't pass MCAS frankly don't have the basic skills," he says, noting that education reform began because high schools were graduating students who lacked the basic competencies needed to hold down a job, let alone continue on to a college or university.

"There's no question that a lot of our kids, particularly in our urban areas, face challenges in their lives that make it much harder for them to succeed academically," he says. But it is schools "that offer the hope. These kids need to be held to the standard or else they're never going to get out of this life of limited opportunity."

Driscoll is braced for a "short-term" rise in the dropout rate. "Hopefully," he says, "we will find different ways to keep kids in school -- by providing a strong retest strategy, tutoring, and other tools to help." As a show of accountability, and faith, Driscoll has tied his future salary increases to student progress on the tests.

Few, of course, would impugn the motives behind educational reform. It is the narrow method employed to measure its progress that raises hackles. The Massachusetts Teachers Association has said it will propose legislation this year to base graduation decisions on an array of measures, rather than just one test. In fact, this option is already embedded in the Education Reform Act of 1993, which contains language embracing a "comprehensive" assessment system. Within a year of the act's passage, the state Department of Education was discussing "portfolio evaluation, performance tests, and other more authentic assessment techniques." But early talk of factoring in students' class work has petered out at the state level. When it comes to mandating a portfolio assessment system as a way of evaluating samples of students' accomplishments over time, James A. Peyser, chairman of the state's Board of Education, has said, "the practical issues and fairness issues are just insurmountable." (In a reverse twist, Vermont tried relying on statewide portfolio assessment for about five years; it has since added standardized testing to the mix.) The dispute over the MCAS tests' exclusive reign will likely end up in the courts.

A landmark federal case waged in Florida from 1978 to 1984 points to the issues that will arise should testing go on trial in Massachusetts. It was litigated by Diana Pullin, now a professor of education administration and higher education at Boston College. An outgoing woman with a pleasant, take-charge manner, Pullin at the time was a practicing attorney with no aspirations to join the academy. Among her expert witnesses in the Florida case, which centered on the use of testing to deny high school diplomas, were George Madaus, Walt Haney, and Peter Airasian, a professor of educational evaluation and former director of CSTEEP. That association, says Pullin, "was the beginning of my long-term relationship with this university."

The judge's decision in the Florida case, Debra P. v. Turlington, made plain that a state could indeed use a test to award high school diplomas. But several conditions would have to be met. First, students must have had a fair opportunity to learn the material covered by the test. Second, the test would have to be a valid and reliable measure of their competence. And third, the test could not perpetuate racial or ethnic discrimination. In 1982, Pullin worked on the appeal of a case in Illinois -- Brookhart v. Peoria School District -- that laid down a fourth condition: The test could not discriminate against people with disabilities. "In each of these areas," says Pullin, "Massachusetts has some particular vulnerabilities that could result in successful lawsuits against the state."

As in Florida, the court here would have the option of shutting down the tests entirely or simply eliminating the graduation requirement. Given the widespread belief that educational reform is necessary in this country, Pullin does not expect any judge to toss out the MCAS completely. Beyond that, no outcome is certain.

The Texas case in which Walt Haney testified against the TAAS went down to defeat even though the judge found that students had been victims of racial and ethnic discrimination. The judge, Edward C. Prado, said it was the hardest decision he'd ever made, but in his opinion the test served "legitimate educational goals." The plaintiffs, he wrote, had not shown that "other alternatives could sufficiently motivate students to perform to their highest abilities."

Ironically, while the Texas case was underway, the American Educational Research Association issued its standards for educational and psychological testing. The standards state that a high-stakes decision should not be based on any one test. Pullin served on the committee that set the standards.

Walt Haney may be right when he says that "traditional scholarly research" is not going to determine how standardized tests are used. It will only inform the debate. The choice of whether to adopt high-stakes testing is at its core a political one, and even a philosophical one. It is a debate over what motivates people to learn and to do their best. It is a debate over how we define and measure success. And it is a debate over who we hold to be the first client of public education -- the individual student, the economy, or the society.

"Look," says George Madaus, "having a high school diploma in America is no big deal" -- as researchers elsewhere have demonstrated, it won't land anyone a great job, and it's no guarantee of affluence -- "but not having one is a disaster." From this perspective, the MCAS and other tests like it are not so much exit exams as they are entrance exams. The aims of the MCAS -- high academic standards, an educated work force, students fit for higher education -- are attractive. But standing alone, the MCAS tests may represent a narrow rendering of fitness for life after high school. They automatically exclude students whose math or verbal skills may be substandard but whose dependability, social intelligence, strength of character, or other attributes leave open the possibility that their limits have not yet been reached.

At a lecture on campus last fall, Walt Haney asked an audience of academics and students how many had ever been stopped for speeding. A field of hands went up. How many had received a ticket? About half the hands went down. "We expect a police officer to use discretion," Haney said. "Teachers know a lot more about their students than police officers do about us when they stop us. How much more sense it would make to return standardized tests to their appropriate role -- to inform human judgment, not mechanically impose judgment."

As the forum last May at the Oak Hill Middle School wound down, anger among the participants sometimes made way for alternative proposals and plans. Early on, Haney had suggested that the decision to bestow a high school diploma should be reached the way admissions decisions at colleges are -- by taking into account a student's grades and personal qualities as well as standardized test scores. Now the middle-school principal who had shared his outrage addressed how to better motivate teenage test-takers: Offer free state-college tuition to all who pass the MCAS, he said. "Give the test on Saturday, and make it voluntary. Why be harsh? Why be punitive?"

Others in the audience talked about swaying state officials to their side. A parent from CARE, the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, provided form letters to anyone who wanted to send a message to representatives in the legislature. And a student from SCAM -- the Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS -- invited everyone present to join a rally near the State House two weeks later.

With academic research lending scant support to high-stakes testing, protest over the MCAS grows -- at the grassroots and among local governments. At the same time, legislative leaders, the governor, and the Board of Education say their support for the test is unequivocal. The battle may last for years.

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