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Case Narrative

President Bush's education bill known as “No Child Left Behind” will require annual reading and math testing in all states for grades 3 through 8 by the 2005–2006 school year.

Marie Javits closed the door to her fourth grade classroom late on a Thursday afternoon near the end of April, and walked down the wide hallway toward the principal's office. She had called the day before to schedule an appointment with Principal John Tatherton, but was now having second thoughts about raising such a sensitive political issue with him. Although Marie was generally outspoken with her opinions, as a new teacher she concentrated most of her energies on her classroom, and left school politics and management to the more senior faculty. But the MCAS test,1 and the reactions of her students and their parents to the intense and laborious process of preparing for and completing the test, had challenged her and created a desire for action.

Marie's class was one of three fourth grade classrooms at Porter Road School, an up-to-date public school facility in the heart of an ethnically and economically diverse city in Massachusetts. The school served students in grades K–8, and emphasized developing student self-esteem in its mission statement. The culturally diverse student body represented over 25 different countries and the school community had worked hard to cultivate a tolerant multicultural environment. The school prided itself on teacher collaboration, team teaching, and an experienced faculty. Marie was the youngest teacher and had just been recruited for the new school year. The faculty also took pride in the special science program created with state funds. Parents were generally very involved with their children's education and the school's academic standards were high. Last year's fourth graders had performed well on the MCAS.

Preparation for May's MCAS test began in mid-March,2 and Marie had told her class they would be putting aside their regular work to get ready. She had also sent a flyer home to the parents to involve them in supportive activities. But over the next few weeks Marie experienced several personal exchanges and events that made her question putting her students through such a rigorous ordeal.

Now, as she took a seat outside of the principal's office to wait for her meeting, she began an internal dialogue with herself. Was it a political mistake to raise the issue of MCAS with a principal that she respected, but only knew on a very formal basis? Would she jeopardize her position as a new teacher? How could she help both her students and parents as they struggled through this difficult time? As she decided what to share with John Tatherton, she began to go over the events of the last few weeks.

Tuesday, March 19: A Chat With Colleague Jean Connaughey

Leaving school on a Tuesday afternoon, Marie had caught sight of her good friend Jean Connaughey, a third grade teacher at Porter Road School. As the two women walked towards the parking lot together, Jean noted how tired and run-down Marie looked. “It's not a personal issue,” Marie told her friend, “It's the MCAS test and all the extra preparation that's involved. I've been reviewing the questions from last year every night and then putting together special exercises for my class. They've been working really hard, but I'm not sure it's going to pay off. This is my first year and I'm supposed to be excited. But I feel like the creative aspect of teaching has been stifled with the rigid curriculum frameworks and all the preparation for this test. My students really enjoyed the history module I had to put aside to get ready for the MCAS.”

Jean commiserated about the pestering questions she received from the parents of her third grade students. They wanted to know if she was teaching her students a curriculum that would prepare them for the test. “It would make a big difference if our principal took a stronger position,” Jean complained, “but John doesn't seem to want to say much about the MCAS and I'm not sure why. I know he feels pressure to make sure that our students continue to perform well, but except for urging us to be knowledgeable about the test and prepare some curriculum to help students, he hasn't really told us how he feels about this effort.”3

Jean asked Marie if she had heard about the parents' meeting planned for the following week. “Yes,” Marie replied, “but I'm not sure what they hope to accomplish.”

“I'm not sure what the intent of the meeting is either,” Jean said, “but it sounds like a lot of parents are really frustrated. They've invited all interested teachers in the district, not just teachers from our school.” Both knew that the reality of the exam loomed large in parents' and teachers' minds, as well as in the renewed media coverage. Everyone seemed interested again in discussing the whole notion of standards-based education and the MCAS specifically.

Wednesday, March 27: Parent-Teacher Meeting With Betty Williams

Marie received a morning phone call from the mother of one of her favorite students. Betty Williams had come early in the fall to talk about Kim's reading problems, and working together, she and Marie had been very successful in turning Kim's reading reluctance into enthusiasm. But now Betty sounded anxious and wanted to speak to Marie as soon as possible.

That afternoon the two women sat down together in Marie's classroom. “It's not hard to find the source of the problem,” Betty told her. “It's this whole testing process and the attitude Kim now has towards the test and school in general. Yesterday, she came home from school, threw her backpack against the wall, plopped herself down on the couch, and announced that she was not going back to school ever again. Before you started to give her so many arithmetic problems to solve, she used to say you were the best teacher in the ‘whole wide world.’ Now,” Betty added sadly, “I'm afraid she talks about you in very unflattering terms.”

Betty explained that other parents were having similar problems. “My hairdresser told me her daughter, who is usually a good student, took the MCAS last year and didn't do very well. Then the kid felt bad for two months afterwards and it affected her schoolwork and her behavior. I don't want Kim to be traumatized by this whole thing. I'm afraid it will have a lasting effect.”

Betty's older son, a tenth grader, was involved with a couple of friends in refusing to take the test as an act of “civil disobedience.” “It's partly because they've been reading Thoreau, and I think one of their favorite teachers is against the test, so they got the idea from him,” Betty told Marie. “They plan to fill out all the administrative paperwork, but leave the tests blank and read books during the exam time. I really don't know whether to applaud his initiative or yell at his belligerence. But then, I can't make him take the test. It seems like such a volatile issue and I certainly don't want my son to get in trouble.”4

A little taken aback, Marie remained silent for a moment, then responded by picking her words carefully. “The students have to take the test because it's state mandated, and I really want to give them the best preparation I possibly can. However, if all the preparation is affecting them adversely in other areas of their lives, I'll have to make some changes in how I'm doing things. I can assure you that all of us teachers here at Porter Road have been discussing how to best go about the preparation for this test, and we're still learning. I appreciate your coming and talking to me about this. I'll pay more attention to just what kind of capacity the students have and how long I can reasonably hold their attention on some of the more difficult material.”

That evening, Marie prepared for the next day's class differently. She put together only half the math exercises and decided to do the reading comprehension exercise a different way. And the following day, she gave her class a pep talk before handing out the exercises, stressing the importance of the test, and the way it reflected on both the students and the school. Given what Betty Williams had told her, she was not surprised at the increase in discipline problems that occurred during the test practice period. She also wondered how parents were dealing with their children's complaints at home, and what kind of encouragement her students were getting from their families.

Tuesday, April 2: Parents Meeting

Marie joined other teachers and parents in the auditorium at the local high school. The room was nearly full and she looked for Jean, but couldn't find her. As she struggled through the crowd, she stopped to chat with a couple that had twins in her current class. “We're not here to advocate one side or the other,” the mother confided, “but we certainly want to know what the other parents are thinking and doing. The agenda was presented as a general discussion of the MCAS, but a core group seems really anxious to get this test abolished, at least at the younger grades.”

Surprised that some of the parents were taking such a strong stance, Marie took a seat at the side of the room, hoping simply to listen to what they had to say and not get involved in any of the discussions. One parent, acting as a facilitator, shouted over the noisy crowd that the meeting was about to begin, and people began to take their seats. After some general comments, the floor was opened up for concerns, and then specific action plans.

Several parents complained that they simply could not interpret the test results, and had no way of determining how their child had actually done or what they could do to help the child if extra work was needed. “The test is supposed to assess our children, but gives us no direction on how to help them achieve more,” said one parent. “If that continues to be the case, I don't think this is a test worth taking.”

Others complained about their kids' declining interest in school and resistance to homework. “The change is so dramatic,” remarked one parent. “My child generally has a good disposition, but the prospect of the upcoming test is making her miserable. And I'm really concerned about how the schools are going to be using this information. If students get so frustrated taking the test, we're just encouraging more of them to drop out.”

Then James Durning, a prominent local businessman, asked to speak. He turned to face the audience in an authoritative manner. “I understand the complaints being voiced here, but I think I have a more long-range perspective. When my human resources people go to interview candidates, they find horrendous reading abilities, almost non-existent math capabilities, and lousy writing. The business community backed the idea of standards-based education for a reason. If you want your child to be able to go out and get a job, then we have got to turn this educational system around. Job opportunities are out there, but graduating seniors can't expect to be employed unless they have at least a minimum skill level. That's all the MCAS is testing for, just a general comprehension and understanding of what every graduating senior should know.”

Another parent, also a professor at a nearby university chimed in, “Standards are a good thing. Standardized tests only mean that all students take the exams under the same conditions. Without standardized tests we have no solid base of information about how well our school performs compared with others outside of our community. MCAS will give us a way to evaluate the quality of education provided at our school. Report cards, hearing from the teacher, and seeing graded samples of student work are all useful in learning about our own child's progress, but we need comparative information and external norms.”

After a lengthy silence, two of Marie's colleagues at Porter Road School took the floor, building on the preceding arguments. “The MCAS,” argued one, “is a test in progress. We are not only trying to improve education for our students, but we are also trying to improve the methods by which we test their knowledge. The MCAS is just one part of that equation and we need to be patient—the test will change and get better over time.”

“Another important thing to remember,” added another teacher, “is that teaching to standards is a way of leveling the playing field, and the discussion really should boil down to an ideal of equity. Every child in our educational system should be receiving the same kind of teaching, at a level and standard that is uniform across the state. It's the right of every student to get a good education, and MCAS means a better education for all.”

Rosa Jimenez, an education and community activist rose to speak. “You're right to call this an issue of equity, but we've got to understand just how completely this is not an equitable situation. Our school might do okay, but what about some of the other city schools where there are 35–36 kids in a classroom, no science books, yet all kids are held to the same standards? This is a way to keep certain portions of the population down. If you want to know how someone will do on a standardized test, find out what their family income is and the results will fall out accordingly. It is the single measure that is found to predict how people do on standardizing testing. Until you can provide labs with water and books, it is a complete set up. No one should take this test.”

The room buzzed a bit and then another parent offered his counterpoint, “Standardized tests have important benefits. What should we do, go back to the way things were? Students work harder if they know that they will have to pass a test for promotion or graduation and it's a good way to identify those who need special help early on, tutoring or summer school. Testing can be useful.”

At that moment, the parent facilitator spoke out, “I am both a teacher and a parent,” she said, “so I see many sides of the same issue. When we first heard about legislation concerned with educational reform we grew very excited. We were told that the state was considering an authentic measurement and a system of assessment. But unfortunately, it's turned out to be one test. What if a kid is having a bad day or week? What if they are the kind of person who just doesn't test well? There's much too much weight on these single tests. We need multiple measures. We all know that testing does not necessarily measure what's important. We should be setting up broad standards, not content standards. We should trust our teachers to teach and concentrate on developing the kinds of skills that last—critical thinking and problem solving skills.”

At this point, Marie almost felt compelled to join the discussion. But she looked at the wall clock and saw how late it was, and decided to leave instead. The MCAS was a contentious and difficult issue, but a discussion of its pros and cons got to the heart of the philosophy of teaching. She felt energized by the discussion.

Wednesday, April 10: Lunch With Jean

When Marie joined Jean for lunch in the teachers' lounge, she explained how the parents meeting and other conversations and events had deeply affected her view of the MCAS. “It's fired up the activist urge in me—I think that I can actually make a difference when it comes to the test.”

She mentioned how she also received a call from an old friend from graduate school. Mary Mech worked in a school downtown that had challenged the whole notion of MCAS. At the start of the school year, their principal had raised the issue in a staff meeting to generate discussion and get opinions and thoughts. The teachers came to a vote and although the school had to administer the MCAS, the principal agreed to inform parents of their right to remove students from the testing program. Further, some teachers who wanted to be more proactive planned to take part in a march before the state capitol. Marie wanted Porter teachers to join the march.

“But Marie,” Jean responded, “I can't believe you think that's a viable option. I doubt that very many people here feel that way. The open-ended sections are valuable for students to tackle. And not taking it at the lower grades just jeopardizes many students' chances of passing the tenth grade test. A lot of kids really need practice in taking these kinds of tests.”

Marie replied, “But that means you're still buying into the idea that we need to administer state tests, and that those results have to follow a child through their academic career. You know who supports the test, business people who think in terms of good employees who can fill the rank and file in their businesses. Teachers and educators like us want kids to develop their ideas and skills for themselves. The truth is, our schools are already doing a better job than most people think. If you really want to foster higher achievement, let's reduce class size, increase resources, promote stronger family involvement, and encourage better student motivation and behavior. What ever happened to measuring student change and growth with portfolios, project-based learning, and authentic assessment?”

“Well,” said Jean, “I admire your desire to do the right thing, but as teachers we're also going to be facing assessment with this test, and the school as a whole is under judgement. I just don't see exactly what we can gain by refusing to teach the material to our students and give them the test. I question the effectiveness of the test in evaluating student achievement too, but we're powerless in the face of state mandates. This is law. Marie, even if four or five schools in the whole district take your stance, it doesn't mean the state as a whole is going to back down from making kids take this test. The kinds of people who support it don't usually take no for an answer.”

“You may be right,” Marie sighed, “and I'm so busy right now I don't have time to fight a battle. But after that meeting there is such a tone of confusion at the school. I need to go talk with John to see if we can have a staff meeting on this. Or at least I can raise the issue in a staff meeting to help get a better picture of the school's stance on the MCAS and the curriculum so I can answer parents' questions honestly. Their attitudes can't help but affect the kids.”

Back to the Present

Marie felt a lot clearer by the time John Tatherton opened his office door and asked her to come in. Reviewing the events of the last few weeks had helped her organize her ideas. She walked into the office and took a seat in the chair opposite John's desk.

All information about the MCAS test presented in this case is accurate according to the information at the Massachusetts Department of Education website. The institutions, events, and people described are based on information gathered from interviews and other research opportunities, but are fictional creations of the author. The case is presented for the purpose of teaching and discussion.

This work was supported by the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund as part of its School/Family Partnerships Initiative and Kraft Foods, an operating company of the Philip Morris Companies.

1 MCAS stands for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, a standards test administered to students in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 throughout the state. The test is part of the Education Reform Act of 1993, a legislative action that also instituted academically rigorous curriculum frameworks. The test and the new frameworks are intended to boost academic achievement and ultimately equalize the opportunities for wider educational and economic success for all young people.
2 Preparation for the MCAS can include a review of the subject matter covered by the exam, as well as test taking tips, and concentration development exercises. The exam itself is divided into four sections: English, Math, Science and Technology, and History and Social Science. Each section combines multiple-choice questions with long- and short-form essay responses. The MCAS is taken in mid-May. Students spend approximately 12 hours completing the work and preparation can include a review of the subject matter covered by MCAS, test taking tips, and concentration development exercises.
3 While administration of the test is state mandated, the amount of time and the quality of preparation is left to each school, principal, and teacher.
4 At the time of writing, MCAS is delivered as an assessment tool and students do not bear any consequences as a result of the test. The scores do reflect on the teachers and schools. However, beginning with the class of 2003, students will be required to pass the MCAS grade 10 tests in English Language Arts and Mathematics as one requirement for a high school diploma. Students will be given multiple opportunities, if necessary, to pass the tests. Students must also meet local graduation requirements for high school graduation, for example, completion of required coursework.



Discussion Questions

  • What are some challenges that Marie faces with her students' parents?
  • How can Marie better explain the tests to parents and suggest ways for them to help?
  • Should Marie let parents know that they can boycott the MCAS test? If not, why not? If so, how should she share this news?
  • What are the pros and cons of the MCAS test, according to all of the people Marie has talked to recently?
  • What are Marie's own feelings about the MCAS?
  • How might Marie adjust her teaching to better align with her beliefs?
  • What are some strategies that parents in the case are using to protest the MCAS test? How can Marie build alliances with these parents? Who else can she enlist around these issues?
  • How can she present her position to the principal and gain his support?
  • What kind strategies should a school district adopt to inform parents, the community, and teachers about state education tests?



Resources for Education Standards and Family Involvement

Barksdale-Ladd, M. A., & Thomas, K. F. (2000). What's at stake in high-stakes testing: Teachers and parents speak out. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(5), 384–397.
This article summarizes the findings from parent and teacher interviews on the effects and values of testing in two states implementing standards-based reform.

Harvard Family Research Project. (2001/2002, Winter). FINE Forum, 3. Cambridge, MA: Author.
This issue of the FINE Forum presents various family involvement approaches that tackle standards-based education and the continuing achievement gap.

Harvard Family Research Project. (2001, Summer/Fall). FINE Forum, 2. Cambridge, MA: Author.
Read about parent perspectives on MCAS in this issue of the FINE Forum.

Kober, N. (2002, October). What tests can and cannot tell us. Testalk for Leaders, 2. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy. Available at
This publication summarizes studies and expert advice on the strengths and limitations of testing.

Just for the Kids Website
This website provides school achievement information to help parents understand how the schools their children attend compare to other schools across the state.

State Education Departments
This website provides links to state education department websites, where you can read about the standards in your state.



Setting Standards at Porter Road School Commentary by S. Paul Reville

S. Paul Reville is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is founder and executive director of MassINC's (Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth) Center for Education Research and Policy. He has served as executive director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform and of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

It's a shame that the teacher, Marie Javitz, neither received adequate preparation for teaching in a standards-based environment nor has she apparently received any professional development opportunities that would help her understand the theory and practice of standards-based reform and the implications of such reform for her own practice of teaching. Marie and her colleagues seem to be floundering in a leaderless, unsupported environment. Naturally, this creates enormous conflicts for her and her colleagues. As parents frequently look to teachers for guidance in an ambiguous educational environment, it is not surprising that parents are exercised and divided about the role of MCAS in their children's education.

To gain skills in communicating with parents about the state's assessment system, Marie would need to understand that the MCAS test is a small piece of a comprehensive, systemic reform strategy designed to bring fairness and excellence to the state's schools. The reform begins with the establishment, for the first time in the Commonwealth's history, of clear goals for what every child should know and be able to do at various stages in the educational process. These standards, while not intended to encompass the full breadth of our educational aspirations for children, are intended to clarify expectations in core subject areas so that young people are fully prepared when they leave school to meet the minimum entry requirements for success in higher education and employment.

Once the standards are articulated, the state developed an assessment system, a yardstick, designed to measure the progress of students and their schools in meeting the educational goals. The tests are diverse in their methods of assessing student performance and designed to yield important diagnostic information to teachers so that they can more effectively target their teaching practices to meet learners' needs.

An instructionally oriented principal or mentor teacher could easily have demonstrated to Ms. Javitz that her curriculum and instruction could be developed in a wide variety of ways, all aimed at helping students attain the standards. A mentor would have shown her that classic test prep methods were ineffective at preparing students to finesse the tests. The nature of these tests, with their heavy concentration on open-ended questions, allows teachers to focus on the standards, not the tests (even though the tests are aligned to the standards). For example, if you can teach a student to write a persuasive essay that student will do well on MCAS. You don't teach writing so that students can pass MCAS. You teach a student to write because it is a vital skill to master before moving on to the next level of education.

Blaming MCAS for retrograde teaching practice is like blaming the thermometer for the fact that you have a fever. MCAS is merely the messenger, providing the data that can help teachers and students improve learning. Those who resist accountability and assume that many students are incapable of attaining high standards have undermined Marie's capacity to see the state's assessment test as a tool with which to improve her teaching and her students' learning. Instead, she has been encouraged to see it as a detriment to effective education.

In the absence of leadership and quality, aligned professional development misconceptions flourish and dissent dominates. I just wish someone had given Ms. Javitz a chance to see that high standards were the only equitable way to assuring a better future for all of her students. With the proper support, Ms. Javitz could have embraced the standards as not only clear educational goals, but a genuine equity strategy, enhanced her teaching practice to encompass the ambition that all students could attain the high standards, utilized MCAS as a teaching tool, and enlisted the support of parents on the high standards mission. Had she been supported in such an approach, she might would not only have advanced her students' learning, but she would have enjoyed a sense of success and gratification in her chosen profession. Instead, she is floundering, conflicted, and discouraged. Without support, Ms. Javitz is likely to leave the profession.

This is a situation urgently requiring the intervention of a strong, constructive, and supportive school leader who can articulate a vision of high achievement for all students and institute a program of supports that will allow Marie and her colleagues to develop a diverse set of teaching strategies that guarantee success for all.



Setting Standards at Porter Road School Commentary by Amanda Ylvisaker, Sheryl Cain, and Dee Olson

Amanda Ylvisaker, Sheryl Cain, and Dee Olson are teachers at Roosevelt Elementary School in the Saint Paul, Minnesota public schools system. They each participated in the course “Teaching for the Commonwealth: Linking Schools With Communities,” sponsored by the University of Minnesota and the Jane Addams School for Democracy. You can view the course syllabus and read more about the Jane Addams Institute for Democracy in the Fall 2002 FINE Forum.

At first glance, this case takes issue with state testing, with most arguments pointing toward one of two conclusions: keep the tests or throw the tests out. Yet the larger issue may be about test preparation, support, and the broader school and community context.

We distill lessons from our professional experiences at Roosevelt Elementary, an inner city kindergarten through third grade school. Much like those at Porter Road School, ours students are diverse—with thirty percent having English as a second language, and our overall state test scores are competitive and improving.

Marie Javits, a first-year, fourth grade teacher at Porter Road School, informs her students that they will put aside regular work to get ready for the MCAS test to be given two months later. The administration has asked Marie and other teachers to be knowledgeable about the mandated tests and prepare curriculum to help students. Yet no guidelines or materials have been given to accomplish the task. Marie and others feel anxious and want their students to do well. The students grow anxious too, due to several weeks of drilling prior to the test, and the setting aside of lessons that interest them. School curriculum that includes objectives covered on achievement tests would eliminate the need to set the curriculum aside to prepare for the test. Students also need to be taught test-taking language and skills; some time should be devoted to that skill. In our school, for example, we teach test-taking language and skills, test content is embedded in the curriculum, and the curriculum coordinator and teaching staff continue to research and develop our curriculum to better meet the objectives of our school, community, and world.

Parents at Porter Road are highly involved. It becomes clear through several conversations and meetings, however, that parents and community members are also troubled by the test. The consequences of their child not doing well on the test concern several parents. A community activist also points out that these achievement tests presently discriminate against some factions of their diverse population. In our own school, a parent involvement team provides education and activities for our parents. The administration, teachers, and support staff maintain a competitive educational program for all of our students, including those with limited English language, and busy, sometimes struggling families. We also acknowledge that testing is only one of several valid measurements of student progress. Schools need to continue measuring student progress and student strengths and weaknesses, but how we measure is the key.

Education falls prey to political ideas such as mandated tests that are legislated, but never fully funded. Lack of funding and time contributes to the communication breakdown among school staff and between the school and the parents and business community, leaving a lot of frustration and ineffective effort in some of our schools.

We believe schools, businesses, and families all working together will create a strong base from which all people will benefit and succeed.

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