The recent decision by Commissioner Riley to eliminate an MCAS writing prompt on this year’s test is a teachable moment. As district leaders there are often issues that arise that provide opportunities to learn and improve. This question is one such moment.
We would like to commend the Commissioner for his decision to eliminate the question. He could have clung to policy or standard procedures. Instead, he chose to listen to students and their teachers. That this question was on a “high stakes” test further stresses the importance of his decision.
The true champions of learning in this situation; however, were the students. There is a great deal of jargon in education. One characteristic that we promote is student agency. The students who acted to express their feelings on this question demonstrated agency in a manner that no multiple choice test could ever measure. We commend these students for their persistence and for their active role in creating and questioning the climate of their public schools.
We also recognize, however, that this flawed question highlights the inadequacy of our statewide accountability system. Massachusetts Superintendents are all for smart accountability. In addition to content-based questions, we need to include more authentic opportunities for students to demonstrate the characteristics needed to address new challenges, like a poorly crafted, high stakes MCAS question. Applying knowledge to novel situations is the true measure of preparedness for life after high school.
As Superintendents, listening to all perspectives is a regular part of the job. In this cacophony of voices, the student voice needs to be encouraged and cherished. Thank you Commissioner Riley for putting the students of the Commonwealth first. The real struggle is not whether we challenge our students to debate the issues of race in our assessment test but whether we provide the right learning conditions in our schools that allow students to discuss these critical issues in a civil and impactful manner.