The following is a post from last November regarding all the hoopla around MCAS scores and the way in which emphasis on standardized testing hurts children and families --
I was working today on analyzing our MCAS results from last spring and decided, just for the fun of it, to see how many of our students would have been considered to be "advanced" and "proficient" if the "cut scores" for the 4th and 5th grade tests were chosen in the same way as the cut scores for the 10th grade tests. ("Cut scores" are the scores which indicate the division between two categories -- for example, between "proficient" and "needs improvement.") The results were very interesting -- had our scores been calculated in the same manner as the 10th grade scores, 97% of our students, in both 4th and 5th grade, would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the ELA tests, and 100% of 4th graders and 94% of 5th graders would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the math tests. Since that's not how the scores for the grades below 10th grade are calculated, though, our actual percentages, while good, were quite a bit below that.
Meanwhile, I was talking with teachers today who were worried about a particular student, who is stressed and anxious because of his parents' concern about his MCAS scores. We have many of those students, and many parents who are concerned about the scores. In some cases, worry about these scores and worry about how their child is doing can cause parents to lose sight of many more important qualities that their child has -- perhaps she is creative, a great thinker, kind to others; perhaps he is a good practical problem-solver, skilled in getting along with others, with many passionate interests -- and focus so much on the scores that the child begins to feel that he/she isn't good enough and becomes stressed and anxious about school and about the tests.
This makes me angry. Where the performance categories on the tests are set is a decision, possibly a political decision, but certainly a decision, by someone, for some purpose. Perhaps the scores at the lower grades are set on the low end to encourage schools and students to strive for higher performance. Perhaps they are set on the low end to create the perception that schools are failing. Perhaps they are set on the low end because the people who set them genuinely believe that they know what 4th or 5th graders should be able to do. Whatever the purpose, where the scores are set is a decision. As stated by Lesley Professor William T. Stokes in his article entitled "Inside the MCAS: A Close Reading of the Fourth Grade Language Arts Test for Massachusetts,"
". . . The reader may wonder at the logic of this system. Why, it might be asked, are the raw score groupings unequal in number? The fact is that the conversion between raw scores and standard scores was decided by a committee of designers, consultants, and policy makers. It was decided. It was not a matter of necessity; there is nothing intrinsic to the test that requires this particular conversion. . . The reason this matters is that performance levels are reported in all the media in relation to standard scores. To obtain a score of 240 will place the student at the threshold of the "proficient" level. Thus, it makes a very great difference whether a raw score of 35 or 40 or 47 gets the student to that threshold. . . It is not my purpose here to examine the political and institutional processes that governed these decisions, so I'll leave these issues for another discussion. My concern now is to help parents and teachers understand the relationship between the reported performance of their youngsters and media presentations of disappointing results. Suffice to say that if the decision had been made to convert a raw score of 35 to a standard score of 240, then more than half of all fourth graders in Massachusetts would have been judged to be "proficient" or "advanced" -- and the public response to the tests would have been very different indeed. . ."
And, as I noted earlier, if the 10th grade cut score levels were applied to the 4th and 5th grade tests, then 97% of our students, in both 4th and 5th grade, would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the ELA tests, and 100% of 4th graders and 94% of 5th graders would have been considered "advanced and proficient" on the math tests. For whatever reasons, the decision was made not to do that.
There may or may not be well-intentioned reasons for that decision in the political or institutional realm. But the decision hurts real children and families, and that makes me angry.