How School Testing Affects Mather Elementary

By Mark Sappenfield writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 2001 | Go to article overview

How School Testing Affects Mather Elementary


Mark Sappenfield writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


At first glance, Maureen McCann's classroom looks like a cauldron of creativity.

Homemade posters cover the walls and papier mache globes hang from every fluorescent light fixture. On this day, she even lets her kids have a pizza party and watch "Tuck Everlasting" - a story they had studied in class.

But ask Ms. McCann, and she'll tell you that the picture is deceiving. It used to be that such culminating activities - "the fun stuff that brings it all together" - were relatively commonplace. Now, a day like this is an anomaly.

Since Boston's Mather Elementary changed its curriculum to prepare its students for Massachusetts' standardized test, she simply doesn't have time.

"You need to stop and catch your breath sometimes," she says, "and [the test] has taken that away."

Her story holds increasing relevance for every schoolchild and parent nationwide. Congress is now poised to require testing for public-school students in Grades 3 through 8 - a key provision of the most sweeping federal education reforms in 40 years. It's a change that, as McCann's classroom shows, can revamp entire curriculums, altering what and how children learn.

While teacher prerogative and creativity, enshrined in the 1960s, are likely to persist in classrooms across the US, the testing requirement represents a fundamental shift in America's educational course. The new legislation, expected to clear both houses of Congress this week, is a sign of the new conviction that a more businesslike, results-oriented ethic is needed to lift failing schools.

"There's always a cyclical element," says E.D. Hirsch of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "In the old system, what was at stake was individual achievement, but that approach has had disastrous effects on equity."

A mixed response

Massachusetts first began its Comprehensive Assessment System exams in math, science, and English in 1998. In many suburban districts of Massachusetts, this new direction has been met with derision, as parents and teachers call the tests superficial and ineffective. In urban and rural areas, however, more educators have been open to the idea.

As a result, the changes in what is taught can vary hugely - from stolid refusal to "teach to the test" to complete overhauls in the curriculum - and those extremes are nowhere more apparent than in the suburban Wellesley Middle School and Mather Elementary here in Boston.

Even from the outside, the schools are a study in contrasts. Set along a quiet side street, Wellesley Middle School almost gives the impression of a college campus in miniature, front quad and all. Mather, meanwhile, rises from its black asphalt seat in a three- story block of red brick. Sneakers squeak impatiently on linoleum floors, and light fixtures in principal Kim Marshall's office rattle as children play in the gym overhead.

Yet when Mr. Marshall looks at students both here and across the state, he sees the same need: a better, more unified curriculum. Massachusetts' standardized test, called the MCAS, is a step toward that goal, he says, and has already helped his students.

"The target that MCAS gave us was much harder than we had before," says Marshall, whose circular glasses and wavy hair give his appearance the slightest hint of a trimmer Steve Forbes. "We looked at the test and said, 'This is much more than we're getting out of our kids.' "

So the school changed its entire curriculum - from kindergarten through fifth grade - to match MCAS expectations. This might force teachers to give up cherished subjects, Marshall acknowledges, but it doesn't have to make instruction a colorless exercise of memorizing dates.

"I draw a distinction between the 'what' and the 'how to,' " he explains. "The 'what' needs to be fixed, but the 'how to' is where creativity comes in."

As evidenced by McCann's classroom, creativity still has a place, even in the more frenetic MCAS world.

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